The amount of time children spend in front of screens is a growing concern for parents. In 2012, it was found that children are using screens 4 to 5 times more than the 2 hour recommendation by the American Academy of Pediatrics.
In this article, we take a look at what the science has to say particularly about the relationship between autism and screen time.
But first, I wanted to let you know that this article is a part of a series of related articles about things you can do to improve your child’s autistic symptoms. They are a mixture of diet changes, supplements, and activities that are backed by science to help alleviate some of the harsh symptoms that come with being on the spectrum.
If you’d like all these articles in a nicely designed, easy to read PDF, just click here and enter your email address and we’ll send you a copy!
This is a tough question to answer. To start out the conversion, I’d like to say that there is most likely not one sole cause of autism. We do know that autism is part genetic and part environmental. One study in 2014 in Sweden estimated it to be split 50/50 between environmental and genetic cause.
Not only is it split between environmental and genetic, but there are multiple environmental factors and multiple genes that can cause it. It’s a very complex disorder.
So how much of a factor is screen time for causing autism? There is differing research on this, but it does seem to be piling up towards the side that yes, screen time can have an affect on autism.
The general argument is that children with autism have higher screen time use that their peers, particularly non-social media. This would include video games and television.
Another study, which looked at screen time and autism correlation found that in places in the U.S. where people watch more television (rainy places) and the rise of cable television in the 1980s found that the rise of autism correlated with the rise of television and places where television is watched more often.
Another study, that looked back on children with ASD and children without ASD found that the children with ASD had started watching television six months earlier than those that didn’t develop ASD. The average age for those who developed ASD was 6 months old when they started watching television.
These are very interesting studies. However, I would like to point out that correlation does not equal causation. Just because they look related when looking back on the data doesn’t mean that one caused the other.
What it does do is give us a clue of places to look further, and to try to ask what could be the link of causation, if there is one?
One of the possible links between screen time and autism could be specifically because of the use of screens at such a young age of children with autism.
It is well known at this point that increased screen usage at a young age is related to language development. Language development is a major factor in autism, and could also be a sign that other learning abilities can get delayed as well from screen usage at such a young age.
So we looked at if screen time could be related to autism, but can it be an ongoing contributor to your child’s autistic symptoms? The answer seems to be yet.
It has been shown in multiple studies that “problematic Internet Usage” has been shown to worsen children’s autistic symptoms. While the definition of how much screen time is “problematic,” from reading other studies, I would consider it to be anything more than 2 hours a day, since that is the recommended normal level of television for children.
Now, we don’t have a solid “why” as to explain this link, but looking at some of the research that takes neurotypical adults and studies what too much internet usage does can give us a clue.
It seems that too much internet usage can lead to abnormalities in the dopaminergic system (the system that produces dopamine in our body) and increases our sympathetic nervous activity.
What this means is that too much internet use leads to addiction problems because of how it affects our dopamine products along with increasing feelings of anxiousness and stress due to our heightened sympathetic nervous activity. That is a pretty scary combination. Not only are we getting addicted to something, but we are getting addicted to things that stress us out.
The affect that internet usage has on nervous system is particularly interesting for children with autism, since their nervous system is one thing that seems to be a problem area, and is exactly why weighted blankets work so well for them since weighted blankets calm the nervous system.
Does your child use screens before bed, or have access to screens in their own bedroom? If so, you may want to eliminate those.
One study found that if children watch television within a couple hours of going to bed, their sleep will suffer. If what they watch is violent, then it’s even worse.
Another study, which looked at if children had access to media in their bedrooms found that children with ASD, ADHD, and neurotypical children all suffered from worse sleep. However, the study pointed out that children with autism had the worse effect from having access to media in their bedrooms.
So not only does problematic screen time worsen autistic symptoms and affect the nervous system, it can hurt your child’s sleep as well. And we don’t really need any science to tell us that poor sleep can lead to problems, health-wise and behavior-wise.
For a lot of families, heavy screen time may already be an ingrained part of life. Many adults are constantly on their phones or watching television after work.
If you would like to reduce screens time with your child, the best approach would be to do it as a whole family. You could try a “screen fast” where you go 2 weeks with minimal screen usage and see how you feel.
Setting the goal for only 2 weeks makes it feel easier than going forever without screens. However, after the two weeks, you may notice a difference in your child’s health to the point where you want to keep going.
What can you do as a family without screens?
There are a lot of options! You can get creative and do something with the whole family.
It does seem like autism and screen time have a connection. However, it’s important to remember that you can start eliminating screen time today. Combining that with other strategies we talk about on our blog, you can probably start to see some great results with your child soon.
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