From the moment babies are born, they find themselves immersed in a cluttered sensory environment, where several stimuli compete for attention. Despite the ever-changing nature of this environment, babies quickly learn to filter out distracting information and prioritise certain stimuli for further processing. For example, it is not uncommon for infants as young as 10 months of age to curiously stare at scenes from Peppa Pig or Sesame Street. Partly due to their reduced mobility and language ability, infants can be excellent watchers and spend considerable time inspecting media contents. In fact, a UK-based survey of 715 families revealed that 75% of children between 6 months and 3 years of age use touchscreens daily, and even among the 25% of children who do not use touchscreens daily, only 42% report no prior use (Bedford et al., 2016). This data suggests that exposure to screens in infants and toddlers is highly prevalent in the UK.
The Predictive Learning Study
Dr. Elena Serena Piccardi and Dr. Teodora Gliga have embarked on a longitudinal study, the Predictive Learning Study, to better understand media choices in early development. The longitudinal design of the research, whereby neural, behavioural and parent-reported measures are collected at different points in development, enables an evaluation of the extent to which early media preferences may be stable or change over time.
The study was initially developed to understand why babies appear so different in the way they seek out new visual stimulation – such as being attracted to fast-paced TV programmes. Various theories have been proposed to explain these differences. According to one theory, infants’ sensitivity to sensory stimulation is the predominant driver of their sensory seeking behaviour. Another theory proposes that infants’ seeking of sensory input is determined by how fast they are at processing the available information. Finally, a third proposal suggests that a preference for novelty is what drives infants to seek out sensory stimulation.
To test these hypotheses, the researchers made use of a technique called electroencephalography (EEG) to measure the brain activity of 10-month-old infants while they watched a repeated video scene from the animated cartoon Fantasia. The scene was suddenly interrupted by the appearance of black-and-white checkerboards. Findings from the first phase of the project, which involved 48 participants, revealed that infants quickly learned the content of the scene. However, while some infants continued to engage with the video scene after having learned its content, other infants quickly disengaged from the video scene to orient to the checkerboard. As the latter group of infants disengaged from the Fantasia scene while still learning about its content, this evidence indicates that they had enough of the “old information” and preferred engaging with “new information”.
Alongside collecting brain responses, the researchers also asked parents to complete a questionnaire about their children’s sensory preferences at 10 and 16 months – including whether they enjoyed watching fast-paced, brightly-coloured TV shows. Findings intriguingly revealed that infants’ drive towards “new information” at 10 months predicted their preference for fast-paced TV programmes both concurrently (10 months) and longitudinally (16 months).
Altogether, these results support the proposal that a preference for novelty is what drives infants to seek out sensory stimulation and contribute to the debate on early TV exposure by emphasizing the role of children’s own temperament as a fundamental driver of early media choices.
Differences in early drives towards novel sensory stimulation
Exploration and discovery are building blocks of children’s learning and cognitive development. By engaging with new sensory stimulation, children can accumulate sensory experiences which may enrich their knowledge of the world and themselves. The researchers believe that studying differences in early drives towards novel sensory stimulation may offer insight into children’s learning strategies and clarify the extent to which different children may benefit from different sensory environments for their learning. Further, given that reduced sensory seeking is reported in the early development of neurodevelopmental conditions such as Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD), this research has the potential to illuminate the possible protective function of early elevated seeking of novel and diversive sensory experiences (Piccardi et al., 2021).
The Predictive Learning Study is still ongoing and a total of 120 families has so far participated in the project. The next phase of the research (ongoing) aims at better understanding media preferences during childhood by asking parents and carers to report on children’s screen exposure and level of epistemic curiosity – that is, how much children enjoy learning something new. Further, parental beliefs about screen use in childhood are being examined. While much of the current literature pictures parents as moderators of screen exposure during development, what the researchers want to explore is the role that children themselves have in deciding which programmes to watch and for how long. Dr. Gliga and Dr. Piccardi believe this research is timely, given the controversies surrounding screen exposure in early development.
The research is funded by the Medical Research Council, the Wellcome Trust, and the University of East Anglia.
ReferencesBedford, R., Saez de Urabain, I.R., Cheung, C.H., Karmiloff-Smith, A. and Smith, T.J., 2016. Toddlers’ fine motor milestone achievement is associated with early touchscreen scrolling. Frontiers in psychology, 7, p.1108.
Piccardi, E.S., Johnson, M.H. and Gliga, T., 2020. Explaining individual differences in infant visual sensory seeking. Infancy , 25(5), pp.677-698.
Piccardi, E.S., Ali, J.B., Jones, E.J., Mason, L., Charman, T., Johnson, M.H. and Gliga, T., 2021. Behavioural and neural markers of tactile sensory processing in infants at elevated likelihood of autism spectrum disorder and/or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Journal of neurodevelopmental disorders, 13(1), pp.1-18.
Dr. Elena Serena Piccardi
Centre for Brain and Cognitive Development, Birkbeck, University of London