The purpose of the present study was to determine whether age and hearing ability influence selective attention during childhood. Specifically, we hypothesized that immaturity and disrupted auditory experience impede selective attention during childhood.
Seventy-seven school-age children (5 to 12 years of age) participated in this study: 61 children with normal hearing and 16 children with bilateral hearing loss who use hearing aids and/or cochlear implants. Children performed selective attention-based behavioral change detection tasks comprised of target and distractor streams in the auditory and visual modalities. In the auditory modality, children were presented with two streams of single-syllable words spoken by a male and female talker. In the visual modality, children were presented with two streams of grayscale images. In each task, children were instructed to selectively attend to the target stream, inhibit attention to the distractor stream, and press a key as quickly as possible when they detected a frequency (auditory modality) or color (visual modality) deviant stimulus in the target, but not distractor, stream. Performance on the auditory and visual change detection tasks was quantified by response sensitivity, which reflects children’s ability to selectively attend to deviants in the target stream and inhibit attention to those in the distractor stream. Children also completed a standardized measure of attention and inhibitory control.
Younger children and children with hearing loss demonstrated lower response sensitivity, and therefore poorer selective attention, than older children and children with normal hearing, respectively. The effect of hearing ability on selective attention was observed across the auditory and visual modalities, although the extent of this group difference was greater in the auditory modality than the visual modality due to differences in children’s response patterns. Additionally, children’s performance on a standardized measure of attention and inhibitory control related to their performance during the auditory and visual change detection tasks.
Overall, the findings from the present study suggest that age and hearing ability influence children’s ability to selectively attend to a target stream in both the auditory and visual modalities. The observed differences in response patterns across modalities, however, reveal a complex interplay between hearing ability, task modality, and selective attention during childhood. While the effect of age on selective attention is expected to reflect the immaturity of cognitive and linguistic processes, the effect of hearing ability may reflect altered development of selective attention due to disrupted auditory experience early in life and/or a differential allocation of attentional resources to meet task demands.