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Experts Answer: ‘Is Screen Time Linked With Autism?’

Photo from Kelly Sikkema’s Instagram

Experts Answer: ‘Is Screen Time Linked With Autism?’

By Movieguide® Contributor

In light of Autism Awareness Day on Tuesday, The Quint reached out to experts to find out if screen time is linked to autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

The answer: it doesn’t cause ASD, but it can influence behavior and development for those who have it.

“In one study published in 2022, it was found that longer screen time in boys at one year of age was significantly associated with autism spectrum disorder at three years of age,” The Quint wrote.

“ASD arises from a complex interplay of genetic and environmental factors and while excessive screen time may influence behavior and development, it is not identified as a causative factor for autism,” believes Dr. Fabian Almeida, consultant psychiatrist.

Dr. Neelu Desai, consultant, pediatric neurologist and epileptologist, breaks down the myth that screens are good for people with ASD.

“Evidence shows clearly that reducing screen time improves social functioning and core symptoms in children with ASD,” Desai said.

“She also pointed out that with the rapid increase in device usage, it is necessary to review the health effects of screen time and to control and limit screen time,” The Quint said.

Almeida says there’s a term called “virtual autism,” which is used for children who display traits similar to ASD due to too much screen time.

A 2018 “study explains how neurotransmitter deficiency of dopamine, acetylcholine, gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), and 5-hydro tryptamine was observed in a group who were internet-addicted urban children and this may cause a spectrum of aberrant behaviour phenotype,” The Quint supplied.

Movieguide® reported on a similar study about excessive screen time effects on toddlers:

The study analyzed data from a collection of 2014 surveys given to caregivers about their child’s sensory preferences, including their sensitivity, preference or avoidance of noise, light and textures.

The analysis revealed that any amount of regular screen exposure before “12 months of age was associated with a 2-fold increased odds” of atypical sensory processing. Higher exposure to screen time at 18 months of age was associated with a higher likelihood of sensory processing difficulties at about a 20% higher risk per hour of screen time.

While atypical sensory processing is often associated with conditions like autism, attention-deficit hyperactive disorder (ADHD) and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), the issues can exist on their own. The study was unable to link screen time with higher rates of autism, ADHD or OCD.

Dr. Desai also confirms that excessive screen time worsens ASD behaviors.

“Individuals with autism often have sensory processing differences, and increased screen time can indeed contribute to sensory overload for some autistic individuals. The visual and auditory stimulation from screens can be overwhelming, leading to sensory chaos and potential meltdowns,” Almeida said.

Many parents are looking for tools to help cut down their children’s screen time.

HGTV stars Ben and Erin Napier created a non-profit, Osprey, to keep kids off social media until they’re 18. It provides resources for families to cultivate in-person engagement for their kids and works on building a network so they aren’t “the only ones” without social media.

“When our kids have more opportunity to be engaged in the real world and learning skills and finding their talents, that’s where self-assurance comes from,” Erin said. “And the opposite of finding self-assurance is in social media. Everything that tears down our self-confidence and self-assurance lives there.”

The Mayo Clinic also encourages parents to curb their kids’ screen time. It offers these six tips:

Be accountable.

Set expectations with your kids, and create goals to be intentional about reducing screen time. Many devices have features to set time limits for use.

Be realistic.

If your kids spend a lot of leisure time on screens, including watching TV, start by setting smaller, more attainable goals. Instead of jumping right to the recommended one to two hours or less per day, start by cutting their current screen time in half.

Be engaged.

After school or work, spend time each day talking face to face with kids and give them your full attention.

Put hand-held devices away.

During screen-free hours, put devices away or at a charging station in a common area so they’re not attracting your kids’ attention.

Create phone-free zones in the home.

Making family meal areas a phone-free zone is an easy way to start.

Go outside.

Putting down the phone and taking a walk or playing outdoors increases your endorphins and provides that feeling of happiness in your brain, boosting your mood and improving your physical health.

The clinic adds that children under age two shouldn’t have any screen time.