Pediatricians are alarmed that little kids who spend hours and hours a day on phones, tablets, and around TVs can develop autistic-like symptoms. The good news: the symptoms often completely disappear when the children switch to playing with palpable toys and other kids, interacting more with caregivers, and avoiding all screens.
Two doctors in France are leading an awareness campaign about “Virtual Autism,” a condition they explain in this video.
“Screen viewing several hours a day prevents the brain from developing and generates behavior problems and relationship problems,” reports Dr. Anne-Lise Ducanda, speaking also for colleague Dr. Isabelle Terrasse. “We decided to make this video to warn parents, professionals, and public bodies of the grave dangers of all screens for children between the ages of zero to four.”
Recently, the doctors were noticing more and more toddlers with unusual changes in behavior. Some had stopped responding to their names, they would avoid eye contact, and had become indifferent to the world around them—characteristics of Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Many were developmentally behind for their age.
After asking parents in detail about the kids’ media use and household exposure, the doctors discovered almost all the children had spent large amounts of time on and around screens—in some cases, ten hours a day.
But when the doctors had families eliminate or greatly reduce a child’s screen exposure for a few weeks, though withdrawal may have been temporarily tough for child and parent, the ASD symptoms would almost always disappear.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, in 1975—when VCRs first came on scene—only one in 5,000 children in the U.S. were reported to have ASD. But by 2016, video on demand had become ubiquitous and the incidence of ASD had risen to one child in 68.
Until very recently, as a cause of autism, “AV (audio-visual) exposure in infancy has been overlooked,” according to research ophthalmologist Karen Frankel Heffler of Drexel University College of Medicine. As she writes in the journal Medical Hypotheses, “There has been an explosion in viewing opportunities for infants over the past 25 years, which parallels the rise in autism.”
“Attention in the vulnerable infant is drawn away from healthy social interactions toward TV, computer screens, and electronic toys,” according to Heffler.
Or, as Dr. Ducanda describes, screen media has a “very addictive power. Little by little the child can no longer do without and demands it more and more. If the parents try and withdraw him, he can go into a real meltdown.”
Doctors Ducanda and Terrasse contend that heavy doses of screen time affect what would be, in pre-digital times, the natural wiring of a child’s brain. Watching a ball move on a screen, for instance, does not register in a child’s mind the same way it does to manipulate and throw a ball. Says Dr. Ducanda: “The small child’s brain cannot develop without this sense of touch.”
So, what’s a parent to do? For one thing, actively support a child’s basic developmental needs. For kids to learn to speak, reason, and develop crucial social skills, they need as much loving, face-to-face human interaction and broad-based sensory experience as possible.
That’s why the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that kids under age two spend full time exploring their world without screen interruption, except perhaps the occasional Facetime with Grandma. Preschoolers should not exceed more than one hour of screen time a day “to allow children ample time to engage in other activities important to their health and development,” says the AAP.
When you look at early childhood through today’s lens, it has actually become a rarified, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. As I write in The Durable Human Manifesto, little ones are essentially “wild humans”—as free and unplugged as any other animals.
“When toddlers range around, freely using all of their senses to examine, taste and play with whatever they choose, they are making rich and lifelong neural connections.”
So kids can stay on a healthy developmental track, Dr. Ducanda recommends:
- Talking to your child “all the time” and verbalizing whatever you do together
- Providing toys and games that require manipulation such as a play farm or kitchen
- Going for walks and giving a child lots of time outside to play alone and with other children
- Not handing a phone to your baby or young child (and locking the screen, just in case)
- Keeping the TV off around kids under age four, even if the child doesn’t seem to be paying attention to what’s on the screen
- Waiting until a child is at least age 6 to have access to a tablet, and only if you’ve set up time and content limits (which I found you can do on the Amazon Fire Kids Edition)
- Explaining to family members and caregivers why these tech hygiene habits are essential to a child’s development, durability, and well-being
As Dr. Heffler points out in her research, Autism-like characteristics that develop in very young children can have a variety of causes. Still, if such symptoms arise, Dr. Ducanda and her colleagues recommend keeping the child away from all screens for at least a month, which will require the cooperation of every person in the household. But, if that can be accomplished, she claims the child’s ASD-like problems will likely “miraculously disappear or diminish considerably.”
Conversely, if a child has a full, well-balanced life, engendering minimal time on screens, the symptoms may never emerge.
Listen to my discussion of Virtual Autism with Audrey Monke on her Sunshine Parenting podcast.
See the American Academy of Pediatrics Family Media Plan here.
Download a free PDF copy of the quick-read The Durable Human Manifesto: Practical Wisdom for Living and Parenting in the Digital World.
DurableHuman.com founder Jenifer Joy Madden is a health journalist, digital media adjunct professor, and author of How To Be a Durable Human: Revive and Thrive in the Digital Age Through the Power of Self-Design. Her work has informed millions on outlets including ABC News, The Washington Post, Readers Digest, Tech Republic, Thrive Global, and many others.