- The rate of childhood autism has risen exponentially in the last 50 years.
- Researchers are studying the correlation between screen time and autism.
- A recent study demonstrates that the longer the child's screen time the more obvious the autism-like symptoms.
- Excessive time watching screens affects young children's language, emotional, and physical development.
Does spending excessive time on electronic screens—television, tablets, smart phones, computers—affect cognitive and language development in early childhood? With the prevalence of autism increasing yearly—the rate is now 1 in 44 children (latest CDC data) up from 1 in 10,000 in 1970 and 1 in 150 in 2000—scientists are ramping up the search for possible causes in children's social environments.
Many researchers are beginning to believe that social environmental factors like exposure to electronic screens, rather than solely biological factors like genetic predisposition, are playing a role in the skyrocketing numbers of children diagnosed with autism and autism spectrum disorder (ASD).
Despite the recommendation of the American Academy of Pediatrics that children under age 2 have no exposure to screens and that screen time for 2 to 5-year-olds be limited to 1 hour per day, most young children are exposed to screens more than this. In one study the average daily screen time of preschool children in the United States was found to be as high as 4.1 hours. Is it a coincidence that the exponentially increasing rate of autism parallels the rising amount of time that young children spend watching screens?
A 2021 study published in Frontiers in Psychiatry looked at 158 children: 101 children diagnosed with ASD and 57 typically developing children. The researchers analyzed the correlation between the amount of screen exposure of the two groups and ASD-rating scores. The study, titled Correlation Between Screen Time and Autistic Symptoms as Well as Developmental Quotients in Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder, lists its main findings as twofold:
- The screen time of children with ASD was longer than that of typically developing children.
- The screen time was correlated with the autistic symptoms and Developmental Quotients (DQ's) of the children with ASD.
Their results demonstrate that “the longer the screen time the more obvious the autism-like symptoms.” Longer screen time resulted in shorter play time, shorter companionship time with caregivers, and shorter time for social interactions. Further, screen time was related to the children’s language development: “The younger the age and the longer the screen exposure time, the more serious the impact on language development.” The study cites research that early exposure to electronic media had a negative impact on language development.
This study, along with the 41 other studies it cites, highlights a trend that we can no longer ignore: Increased exposure to tablets, smartphones, and TV in children under age 2 is correlated with symptoms of ASD as the child develops.
The takeaways for parents are clear: Take seriously the recommendations of the American Academy of Pediatrics regarding screen time, discuss your infant or toddler’s exposure to screens with your pediatrician, and find more time to socially interact with your child by talking, singing, reading, and playing simple games without the presence of electronic screens. Above all, make eye contact as often as possible with your infant or toddler. As psychiatrists Donald Winnicott and John Bowlby pointed out decades ago, and what modern neuroscience has confirmed, the baby must feel that he is important as reflected in the loving gaze of his parents.
Dong, H. et al, 2021 Correlation Between Screen Time and Autistic Symptoms as Well as Development Quotients in children with Autistic Spectrum Disorder. Frontiers in Psychiatry, 2021; 12: 619994
Ducanda, A. Les tout-petits face aux écrans: Comment les protéger? 2021, Editions du Rocher.
Healy, S. 2018. Environmental Factors associated with physical activity and screen time among children with and without autism spectrum disorder. Journal of Autism Developmental disorders (2018) 50:1572-79.
Montes, G. Children with autism spectrum disorder and screen time: results from a large, nationallly representative U. S. study. Acad. Pediatrics (2016) 16: 122-8.