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Temperament May be Key Factor in a Child's Affinity for Screens, Study Suggests

Baby television illustration

Alison Czinkota / Verywell 

 

Key Takeaways

  • Researchers studied the brain activity of babies to determine how attracted they were to new images inserted into a video clip they had seen many times before.
  • Some babies were more interested in the new images than others. This suggests that some babies may grow into kids who prefer more screen-based stimulation.
  • Even if a child has a natural affinity for screen content, parents can find alternative forms of entertainment that meet their child's individual stimulation needs.

How much a child enjoys television is often correlated to how much screen time is allowed. In August, new research published in the journal Infancy found that some babies may be hard-wired to enjoy screens more than others. 

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends limiting screen time for children under age 2, since previous research has indicated that social learning is more effective for infants than learning from video screens. The new study, however, suggests that a baby’s affinity for screens could be a matter of nature versus nurture—or in other words, dependent on the individual. 

Researchers from the University of East Anglia and Birkbeck, University of London studied a group of 10-month-old infants and found that brain responses from visual stimuli could predict whether they would enjoy watching fast-paced TV at a follow up six months later.

What this means is that for today's kids who can’t seem to get enough of their screens, it isn't necessarily because their parents were overly permissive—it may just be how their brains are wired.

Study Findings

A preference for novelty is at the heart of the new findings. During the study, researchers showed a short clip of the Disney movie "Fantasia" to 48 healthy, full-term 10-month-old babies. As the babies watched, the research team inserted random interruptions and studied how the interruptions affected the babies’ brain waves. Babies with a high preference for novelty began to take notice of the interruptions much earlier than their counterparts who remained content to watch the original video clip longer.

Teodora Gliga, PhD

The sensory environment surrounding babies and young children is really complex and cluttered, but the ability to pay attention to something is one of the first developmental milestones in babies.

— Teodora Gliga, PhD

In a statement about the findings, lead researcher Teodora Gliga said, “The sensory environment surrounding babies and young children is really complex and cluttered, but the ability to pay attention to something is one of the first developmental milestones in babies. Even before they can ask questions, children vary greatly in how driven they are to explore their surroundings and engage with new sights or sounds.”

Regulating Screen Time Based on Temperament

This new information means that parents who have a child with a high preference for novelty may have a more difficult time when it comes to limiting screens or restricting content during allowed screen time.

These are the kids who won’t be satisfied shuffling through the same two or three episodes of "Blippi" while parents attempt to get things done. On the other side of the coin, however, are the children who would be perfectly content with the TV off all day, and may feel irritable and overwhelmed after large amounts of screen time. 

“Parents are the best experts when it comes to their own child’s development,” says Erin O’Connor, PhD, a professor of education at New York University, director of NYU's Early Childhood Education program, and co-founder of Scientific Mommy. “Different children process and seek out visual information differently. If a parent notices that their child reacts negatively after screen time, then it may not be the best sensory input for their child. Their child may also react differently to screens depending on the type of content and the time of day.” 

But for children who are sensation seekers, TV can certainly provide stimulation, says Anna McAlister, PhD, an associate professor of marketing at Endicott College in Massachusetts. “However, there are various other activities that can also help these kids learn.”

Erin O'Connor, PhD

Different children process and seek out visual information differently. If a parent notices that their child reacts negatively after screen time, then it may not be the best sensory input for their child.

— Erin O'Connor, PhD

McAlister lists several activities to consider when it’s time to turn off the screens: 

  • Visit a science museum. These often provide kids with fascinating, hands-on experiences full of lights, colors, and sounds.
  • Outdoor activities like a pool or trampoline. These high-energy playthings offer lots of stimulation and excitement for kids who may be higher on the sensation-seeking scale.
  • Try a ropes course. Kids with a high preference for novelty may find their stride with a challenge like this. Plus, it’s a great way for the whole family to have fun together.
  • YouTube videos. Yes, it’s a screen. But YouTube, when viewed together with a parent, is a great way to find tons of fun science experiments, simple crafts, and even some kid-friendly recipes to try out.

Managing Screen Time With Multiple Kids

While managing screen time based on an individual child’s temperament may be relatively straightforward, things can get much more complicated when there are multiple children in the household. When one child’s screen preferences are markedly different from the others, whether in type or quantity of content consumed, parents are faced with having to find a solution that appeases everyone. 

“If parents are worried about their younger children’s exposure to what their older siblings are watching, they can communicate openly with them about the content. Watch with them, ask open-ended questions to gauge children’s understanding of the content, and avoid making assumptions about how children are processing what they watch,” says O’Connor.

What This Means for You

Parents want what’s best for their kids, and often that includes limiting or managing screen time. Kids who have a high preference for novelty may seek out more and more stimulation in the form of TV shows and other screen content, but parents can provide alternatives that can also satisfy this need. Being aware of the child’s needs is a good starting point to doing so.

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Article Sources
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  1. Piccardi ES, Johnson MH, Gliga T. Explaining individual differences in infant visual sensory seeking. Infancy. 2020;25(5):677-698. doi:10.1111/infa.12356

  2. American Academy of Pediatrics. Growing Up Digital: Media Research Symposium. October 1, 2015.

  3. Screen time and young children: Promoting health and development in a digital world. Paediatr Child Health. 2017;22(8):461-477. doi:10.1093/pch/pxx123