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Autism and Screen Time: How Are They Connected?

December 7, 2023

Prolonged use of digital devices is unhealthy for children, but is there a connection between autism and screen time? Recent studies have shown that screen time can cause “virtual autism” (find out more here). For children with ASD, however, the use of social media can provide a buffer enabling them to process information in the real world easily.

As a parent of an ASD child, you would want to help your little one live as healthy a life as possible. This is why you need to be aware of the effects of technology on your child’s upbringing. This article discusses the potential link between autism and screen time, as well as the pros and cons of screen time for autistic children.

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Autism and Screen Time Addiction

Children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) often face difficulty in understanding and navigating the world around them. Furthermore, autistic children are prone to repeating specific patterns of behavior, which makes it difficult to interact with others.

This is why digital devices provide an escape to autistic children, where predictable outcomes allow them to perform according to their own pace. According to research published by the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, autistic children spend more time on screen than children who do not have autism. 

About 64.2 percent of young adults with ASD spend their free time on TV and video games. 13.2 percent of young adults with ASD spend time on social media sites, emails, and chatting.

Is Screen Time Good For Autism?

In an article by the Huffington Post, parents say that digital devices are “an important tool that helps their kids communicate, develop social skills, enhance their ability to learn, and even alleviate anxiety.” 

Screen time and autism offer several benefits for children on the spectrum. The digital medium provides:

  • a calming effect through predictable video games and online videos,
  • visual and auditory stimuli not found in face-to-face interactions, 
  • offers a controlled setting for autistic children to process and improve social interactions,
  • effective visual learning tools, helping children with autism learn in a safe environment,
  • a chance to bridge educational gaps experienced in traditional classrooms.

Does Screen Time Make Autism Worse?

Although screen time for kids with autism can be helpful, it should be regulated by parents since too much of it can have negative consequences.

When it comes to autism and screen time, excessive exposure may:

  • result in sensory overload, disrupted sleep patterns, and heightened stress hormones
  • hinder social interaction and language development, as indicated by research in the South African Journal of Communication Disorders,
  • worsen sensory issues, obsessive-compulsive disorders, and social anxiety
  • contribute to a lower attention span, mental health issues,
  • lead to exposure to inappropriate content, 
  • cause a decrease in physical activity, potentially leading to obesity. 
A table of Pros and cons of screen time for autism
https://www.autismparentingmagazine.com/screen-time-kids-with-asd/

How to Manage Screen Time for Autistic Children

Keeping the advantages and disadvantages of autism and screen time in mind, parents should regulate the time their kids spend on digital devices. It is important to set out rules for screen time. 

For children and young people with autism, the following points regarding screen time should be considered:

  • Regulate screen time: Allocate a certain amount of screen time and stick to it. Three hours a day is the maximum time limit for using digital devices.
  • Make screen time a reward: Use screen time as a reward for activities your child may not enjoy, such as cleaning up, homework, or other chores.
  • Monitor online activity: Since the digital world is filled with frauds and scams, it is easy for children to be lured by them. This is why parents should monitor their children’s online activity. Cell phone monitoring applications such as Xnspy monitor your child’s smartphone. You can also determine application usage.
  • Give a warning before the end of screen time: Give a 10-minute and five-minute warning before the screen time ends. Use a timer to clock the time spent on a digital device so that your child is aware of the time spent and the time left for screen time.

Age is a factor in determining how much time a child should spend using a digital device. The following table lists the recommended time for each age bracket.


Age(years)

Recommended Screen Time(hours/day)

3-5

0.5-1

5-7

1-1.5

7-12

1-1.5

12-15

1.5-2

16+

2

Balance Is the Key

Digital devices, including smartphones and tablets, help autistic children learn and interact with the world. Digital devices provide comfort and a familiar environment, which makes it easy for kids on the autistic spectrum to perform.

It makes them independent learners and removes distractions that may cause anxiety and trigger stress. Undoubtedly, digital devices are essential to help autistic children’s daily lives.

The negative effects of digital devices are well-documented. The health-related issues caused due to increased levels of screen time are a cause for concern. Therefore, too much screen time is not good either.

FAQs

Q: Does screen time cause autism?

A: A study on autism and screen time found that increased screen exposure is associated with more severe ASD symptoms, particularly sensory issues, and can lead to issues in brain development. If your child shows autism-like symptoms and has a history of excessive screen exposure, it might be virtual autism.

Q: How much screen time should an autistic child have?

A: Experts caution parents about the dangers of young children spending three or more hours daily on screens. Excessive screen time, especially at an early age, can impede proper brain development by depriving it of essential stimuli.

Q: Is too much screen time bad for autism?

A: Children with ASD often struggle with social interaction and communication, and too much screen time can make these challenges worse. Additionally, kids with autism may have a tendency for repetitive behaviors, and excessive screen use can reinforce these patterns.

Q: Does screen time cause overstimulation?

A: Excessive screen time and the fast-paced nature of media can contribute to overstimulation. Prolonged exposure may overwhelm the senses and lead to sensory overload.

This article was featured in Issue 91 – Great Back-to-School Strategies

References:

Digital guidelines: Promoting healthy technology use for children
https://www.apa.org/topics/social-media-internet/technology-use-children

Prevalence and Correlates of Screen-Based Media Use Among Youths with Autism Spectrum Disorders
https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10803-011-1413-8 

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