Are screen time and autism in children connected?

If your child spends hours on mobile phones or other gadgets, you might want to keep a check on the screen time. A psychologist has found a connection between too much screen time and autism in children. On Autistic Pride Day 2023, let's find out if excessive exposure to screen can cause autism in children.
Screen time for kids
Excessive screen time is harmful for children. Image courtesy: Adobe Stock
Natalia Ningthoujam Published: 18 Jun 2023, 12:00 pm IST
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Many parents give tablets or phones to their little ones to watch cartoons or kid-friendly videos. While the kids stay entertained, the parents wrap up their office work or household chores. This might help the parents, but in the long run it might be unhealthy for the child. In fact, in 2018, Romanian psychologist Marius Teodor Zamfir came up with a phrase — virtual autism. According to ResearchGate, the psychologist found a connection between autism and too much screen time. He noticed that children aged between 0 and 3 years, who remained hooked to screens for more than four hours in a day, had “sensory-motor and socio-affective deprivation.” This, in turn, triggered behaviour that was similar to those that are found in kids who were diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). On Autistic Pride Day, which is observed to create awareness around autism on June 18, let’s find out the possible connection between screen time and autism.

Health Shots reached out to Dr Rajat Chopra, Consultant – Neurology, Narayana Superspeciality Hospital, Gurugram to know more about “virtual autism.”

screen time and autism
Studies have found that screen time and autism may be connected. Image courtesy: Adobe Stock

He says “virtual autism” is not a recognized medical or psychological term. According to him, excessive exposure to screens does not cause autism. It is a neurodevelopmental condition with a complex etiology, involving a combination of genetic, environmental and neurological factors. While research on the relationship between screen time and autism is still ongoing, there is currently no credible evidence to suggest that excessive screen time can directly cause autism in children.

Among the various research work, a study that was published in the Jama Network showed that among boys, longer screen time at one year of age was significantly linked with autism at three years of age. Another study that was published in Frontiers in Psychiatry, looked at more than 150 children. Out of them, 101 children were diagnosed with autism and 57 were typically developing kids. The researchers found that the screen time of children with ASD was longer than that of typically developing kids. They also found that the screen time was correlated with the autistic symptoms.

Excessive screen time and kids

Research on autism and screen time might be ongoing, but excessive screen time in children can potentially contribute to various health problems, says the expert. Some of the potential issues associated with excessive screen time include:

1. Language and cognitive development

Excessive screen time may replace opportunities for active play, social interactions, and language development, which are important for a child’s overall cognitive and language skills.

screen time and autism
Keep an eye on your child’s screen time. Image courtesy: Adobe Stock

2. Behaviour and emotional regulation

Dr Chopra says some studies suggest a possible association between excessive screen time and behavioural issues like attention problems, impulsivity and poor emotional regulation. However, the causality and underlying mechanisms are still under investigation.

3. Sleep disturbances

Exposure to screens, particularly in the evening or at night, can interfere with sleep patterns and quality, leading to difficulties falling asleep or disrupted sleep.

4. Eye strain and vision problems

Extended screen use, especially without proper breaks or appropriate viewing distances, can lead to eye strain, dry eyes, blurred vision, and other vision-related issues.

5. Sedentary behaviour

Spending excessive time in front of screens often leads to a more sedentary lifestyle, which can contribute to a higher risk of obesity and related health problems.

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As a mother, you should make sure that your child is able to find a balance between screen time and other activities, such as physical play, social interactions, and creative pursuits.

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About the Author

Natalia Ningthoujam has written on various subjects - from music to films and fashion to lifestyle - as a journalist in her career that started in 2010. After getting stories from the crime scene, police headquarters, and conducting interviews with celebrities, she is now writing on health and wellness which has become her focus area. ...Read More

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