Durable Human (2 book series)

A Mother Speaks about Her Toddler, Screentime, and Virtual Autism

Toddler plays alone on tablet

Robin thought she was “being Super Mom” as she made nice dinners and tidied her midwestern U.S. home, with her toddler son quietly sitting nearby watching made-for-babies TV. She didn’t know that by letting him watch so often, he was developing the newly described condition termed “Virtual Autism.”

Took a While to Realize

For weeks, Robin rationalized the changes she saw, but finally had to admit something was wrong. Her formerly happy, lively 14-month-old had stopped having eye contact, no longer said words, and began to display hand-flapping, spinning and other autistic-like symptoms.

“The big one was,” she recalls, “he had stopped answering to his name.”

As she searched her mind, it dawned on her that he was a bit more sociable and “himself” on days the TV was off. She thought about how much he’d been watching the online baby show, CoComelon. He started in the COVID lockdown and it became a habit over the months. He typically watched about two hours a day.  

Going to the computer, she searched the words “screentime,” “toddlers”, and “autism.” That’s when she found The Durable Human post on Virtual Autism.

“The next day,” she recalls, “we stopped screentime.”

Origins of Virtual Autism

The Romanian clinical psychologist Marius Zamfir first named the condition that can emerge among toddlers who watch multiple hours of screen media on a daily basis. As Zamfir has stated, “I used the word ‘virtual’ in the naming because there is a direct causal link between excessive consumption (over 4-5 hours per day) of virtual environment (smartphone, tablet, TV, laptop, etc.) and ASD-specific behaviors [among children 0 to 3 years].”

Zamfir also pioneered the treatment: to stop the child’s exposure to all screens and greatly increase interaction with parents and other caring people. The intervention includes much more face-to-face and eye contact, talking, and physical play with real toys and children—indoors and out.

As Zamfir explains, “The younger the age in problem identification, the faster the problems go away.”

Pediatricians and psychologists from France, the U.S., Israel, Iran, and Thailand now study and treat children with the screen-induced syndrome and are cited on the website autismandscreens.org.

The World Health Organization advises there should be no screen media for children under two years old due to their extremely rapid and sensitive brain development, as well as need for physical activity and affection.  

Screentime Stopped, Skill-building Started

Robin and her son’s pediatrician agreed that removing screens couldn’t hurt. They saw improvement almost immediately.

In just the first week, Robin says, “his waving came back within a few days…all of a sudden he was very clingy with me, which was out of the norm and very reassuring to me and eye contact wasn’t where it should be, but it was there—definitely.”

After that, she began to work with her son to improve every developmental skill that was absent or lacking when he took the M-CHAT toddler screening questionnaire for autism spectrum disorder.

A Long Path Back

Recovery took months. “The screen removal was the easy part,” she told The Durable Human in an interview. “The hard part was the constant high-quality social interaction.”

Robin never gave up. “Since the progress started so rapidly, it was kind of instant gratification for me. It was very inspiring. And I also had this idea that this is my one shot. I don’t have another option.”

She worried her son needed extra help regaining his speech. “His receptive language was just nothing and he didn’t say anything. So even though he really wanted to be social, he could not talk or comprehend.”

After five months of speech therapy, Robin proudly reports, “He graduated! The communicative language words he speaks is within the threshold of normal for a two-year-old and his receptive language is considered advanced.”

The Miracle of No Screentime

The little boy’s doctors are astounded at his progress, as is Robin herself: “A miracle. it’s like I saw a miracle.”

She calls it “the greatest blessing in disguise. I mean, with screens just not being an option, it really frees you from that crutch.”

She and her son now are both more “present,” in her word. “The screens almost made it feel like, instead of living and enjoying the day, it felt like I was just getting through the day. Like this was a balm or a drug or a time-eater, just to whittle away the day. I feel so empowered now that I’ve done it without screens and I know I can do it. I feel like endless possibilities.”

A Warning about Early and Often Screentime

Robin, who had been following information about babies, toddlers and screens that is shared on The Durable Human blog and YouTube Channel, volunteered to tell her story because she wants to give the world this message:

“Families need to know that, even though heavy screen use is normalized in our society, that doesn’t mean it’s safe. Lead paint was once called safe, asbestos was called safe, cars didn’t have seat belts—and that doesn’t mean it was okay.

This heavy screen use in society is fairly recent. Its effects on the human mind—on our children—hasn’t really been fully realized yet. And just because you aren’t being warned explicitly at every doctor’s appointment, or by parents that came before you, or other parents—that doesn’t mean the danger isn’t there.”

“Wrong to Keep it to Myself”

Robin’s second child was expected days after she spoke with The Durable Human. Having her hands fuller won’t stop her from spreading the word about the effects of early and often screen viewing. 

“I don’t feel that I would be being a good human being to keep this to myself. That’s why I agreed to this interview and any subsequent anything. It would be wrong to keep this to myself.”

Here’s a 49-second trailer from the interview:

About the author: Jenifer Joy Madden is a certified Digital Wellness educator, health journalist, and founder of DurableHuman.com and Durable U online parent education. She wrote How To Be a Durable Human: Revive and Thrive in the Digital Age Through the Power of Self-Design and is the mother of three grownup practicing durable humans.

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hi, I am from India (living in uae), i read all of your journey and it is very inspiring and giving a hope of positive result to me, i have 4 children, the eldest is 5 now and is very smart started talking at the age of 9 months and making sentences at 18 months and phrases by 2 years, i gave birth to twins when she was 18 months, and gave birth to another baby when the twins were 15 months, however, one of my twin is not making eye contact, not responding to her name now. i notice after giving birth to my younger baby, she try to getting to the room see me with the new born with a cornered eye and leave the room before i try to attend her, later until she is three i never noticed that she doesn’t speak or give eye contact as she was on fulltime screen on, and was humming rhymes, always active, jumping , climbing and sometime uncomfortable crying which made me take little extra care for her, and she gets easily irritated, now she is 3years 6 months running, eye contact is poor, she does plays with her siblings but limited games, poor responding to the name, and no sentence making,.. she use words like wash, come, go.. but depends completely on her whether to pronounce or to point. she does recognizes alphabets to certain extent, and number 1-10, and body parts, she is independent on her eating but doesn’t sit still .. non stop walking all over the house, jumping, climbing the couches, tables etc. now i am in a stage where i cannot give her complete attention as i have other three also. please help me understand how to workout to make it happen that she talks. i am guilty that i put her on screentime with out knowledge of what she is going thru.
thanks you.


Hello Asia, welcome to this community and I am so glad you have written. Sorry for my late reply, I had sick kids this week, you know how that goes.

Luckily the attention your daughter needs to regain her social skills and learn speech does not have to be 1 on 1. It does not have to be 1 parent 1 child interactions. Having the other children around will help to give your daughter the social interactions she needs! Remove screens from everyone and do group activities, even if those activities are cooking dinner together or doing laundry as a family. Do try to get some directly focused attention on your affected daughter whenever you can fit it in, even if it’s just a little tickle here and there, but having the other children around will not be an obstacle to her recovery.

Please read all the information in this article as well as watch the videos. This is where Jennifer Madden, the website admin and owner, has collected much of the information about autistic behavior and screens into one place. She updates it frequently! This is where I started when I rehabilitated my son after heavy screen exposure. Not only that, but there is a very active comments section underneath the article where parents share advice and support each other. Reach out to us often! I am usually much faster at getting to comments in general than I have been when you reached out a couple of weeks ago.


I would also encourage you to read anything you can online about Lori Frome. She is an autism therapist who ended up rehabilitating her own son after screen overexposure. She, like you, had other children at the same time and she got them in on her son’s recovery. Her son was the same age as your daughter when she started his rehabilitation. There are a few interviews of Lori Frome hosted on this website, and she is also active in the comments section on the linked article. Please write as often as you need, with any questions or concerns, we want to support you!



Hi all,
I’m from India(Tamilnadu), I read all of your journey and that’s very inspiring for me. I have a daughter just 2 years old, she was in fully screentime from 6 months to 2 years . I got a reels in Instagram about this virtual autism. After that I realised even my daughter has some of the symptoms.. after that only I noticed her not responding to her name call and no proper eye contact. When my daughter was 1 year old I became pregnant for 2 nd baby and it was twins since I had some issues in my health I wouldn’t focus her. She used to sing rhysms say ABc and 123 before I was aware of virtual autism . I thought ok she is learning from the screens. Once I noticed her behaviour change i immediately stopped screens. But the thing is that it’s been a one month I stopped screens she is blabbering rhymes and she is connecting everything with rhymes if she sees a dog she is singing bingo rhymes and also like she is relating everything with rhymes around her . This i noticed after i stopped her screen time . But also she imitates me and my husband. She imitates wat i say . Does imitating words is good improvement. I consulted a good pediatrician and he said me to keep her engaged and put her in playschool and speech therapy. I’m very worried about my daughter. Now I’m in a stage where I have to look after my daughter and also my twin babies. She is not getting attached to my twin babies also. Please help me out . Is imitating our speech is good sigh. And singing and babbling rhymes and relating to environment is good or bad. Please help me .


Hello Amirtha, I’m very happy you’re here. This is Robin, the mother from the interview.

It is a good sign that your daughter is speaking words. My son, who I did the screen removal protocol with, couldn’t say any words at all until he was 23 months old.

Please read all the information and watch all the videos in this blog post: https://durablehuman.com/virtual-autism-new-threat-toddlers-too-much-screen-time/

The information in that blog post is where I started with my son’s rehabilitation.

It is a lot of information in that blog post, so I will also tell you the process here, but do please still read the articles in the post:

First you are going to take screens away from your daughter. That will stop more damage from being done. Second, you are going to undo the damage. To do this you will need to help her to learn to experience pleasure from both social interaction and full body in real life sensory experiences instead of from screens. You will do this by 1) interacting with her as much as possible. Talk to her, imitate her, play toys with her, etc. And 2) give her many sensory experiences that involve all five senses (touch, sigh, hearing, taste, feeling) have her play outside lots and lots, let her play in water (sink, tub, in bowls, outside and inside), sing to her, give her messy foods to play with and eat, try to get her to join you in your chores (my son’s favorite was throwing laundry into the washer)

I want to warn you it will be very hard at first. You will feel like you are singing your heart out and begging for her attention and she won’t be able to give you a sign that she truly “sees” you in a social context. But keep trying. She will eventually start to make eye contact. And she will eventually remember her name and look to you when you call her.

There is also a very active comments section under the blog post I linked to where many parents go to seek and receive help from each other, some of their comments can give you hope. Please write often as you want with questions or seeking support, I will be happy to answer you.


Also, I forgot to say, this sounds good to me that she is able to connect the Bingo the dog song to a real dog. This seems like she understands the context behind the song and it’s not simply meaningless babbling. It is a very good sign.

I would also do what the pediatrician recommends. High social interaction and speech therapy can be a very wonderful tool if it is within your family’s means!


Thanks alot Robin. As you said I watched the video it was very usefull . Now she started to say hifi and shakehand when I ask. I am making her engaged in activities like flash cards books colour pencils and drawing, she is just scribbling and she started to point her finger but pointing is not for communication.. she points on objects herself and she says the name of the object. If I ask she won’t say the object name but later after sometime she herself blabbers and says. As u said I sing song dance with her and all . But she is not that much interested. But then too I won’t leave my hope daily I take her out. She saying mommy daddy but she don’t look at me and say mommy . She just keep on saying this she imitates from Vlad and niki show. She is not able to understand my commends if I say( keep the toy on the bag )she doesn’t know. And she started to imitate my words if I say her name and call immediately she is saying her own name is that a good sign? . She is just imitates only few words which is very catchy for her. She is not interested in household chores I used to involve her in cooking and laundry but she doesn’t care and not even look, that time she will be look somewhere . I will definitely watch the blog Robin . I’m soo thankfull you replied my message.


I forgot to say, the high fives and shaking hands is fantastic and such a great sign! Especially since it’s on command!


And one more thing, she is crying for everything that she wants. She doesn’t point her finger but she is crying. Any idea to change this behaviour. And then she drang me to that place and cry to get the toy. Is this normal


Hello Amirtha,

Given the range of dates your daughter was using screens, she is probably has a more severe case of virtual autism. Many of the very important formative months of babyhood and toddler hood for her were spent watching screens and having them affect her. The longer the exposure to screens is, and the earlier the screen exposure starts, the more intense the autistic-like symptoms are, and the longer the recovery takes. I am letting you know this so that you are less likely to lose hope if things seem to be progressing slowly! Full recovery might take 18 months or longer for your daughter. However it will get easier every day as she progresses. Month 18 won’t be near as hard as the first few months. And also know that it is possible, other children before her with similar screen viewing times have also made full recoveries.

So what you have described to me, some things sound like symptoms from screens. The grabbing you and dragging you to the toy is a a behavior like that, and her speech seems to contain a lot of echolalia (mimicking words and phrases but out of context)

However, she is definitely making progress, I can tell from what you’ve written in your comments.

I think it’s great that she is pointing and labeling things. I think you should copy her when she does this. If she points and labels an item, you also point and label that same item. Copying is a great way to model social interactions for your daughter. And, since she’s pointing, I would work on expanding on that. With my own son, who could not understand pointing or point at all, I used candy to help him learn.

What I would do is get some small candies and point to them myself and say “look!” Your daughter will start to get the idea that pointing means showing something to someone. Do this every day.

Also, when she drags you somewhere to get your help, you should pause and point at the toy or whatever it is while saying “help? You want my help? Yes I will help.”

Since she does point and label some items, let’s try to get her to label you. Point at yourself and say “mommy.” You can also try printing off a photo of yourself and pointing to that and labeling “mommy”

Another thing you can try, if she lets you, is take her hand and touch it to you and say mommy. You can also make her touch her hand to her own chest while you say her name.

I am suggesting some ideas to work on pointing because it’s something she shows a little bit of skill with, so it will be a good one to work on.

Does she seem to know her name is referring to her, or does she only repeat it with no signs of recognition of the meaning of the word?

You are doing a very hard thing, helping your daughter while also having twin babies. I am proud of you. This will be so hard but so worth the effort. Don’t give up!

If speech therapy is something your family can attain, I do suggest it. With your daughter being so young, a lot of what a speech therapist does is instruct the parents on the best ways to interact and communicate to help children learn language, it could be very useful to you!

Write as often as you like,



Hello Amirtha,

I just wanted to write to let you know I am thinking about you and your daughter. I know you are very busy right now with her and the twins so don’t feel rushed to respond to this comment, but I wanted to say hello and let you know I am thinking about you and I know what you’re doing is very intense and hard work. You can do it!

From your friend and a mother who knows what you’re going through,


Lara H

Hi Robin
Hope you are well! I recently wrote comments under the other post about virtual autism and received some great answers. I was hoping to ask you a few things since I see that you mention recovery time possibly being dependent on the age of early screen expose as well as amount of screen exposure.

My son was exposed early to seemingly innocent baby lullaby videos and later on baby cartoons. He showed ASD like behavior at around 19 months. He’s 28 months now.

We removed screens around 6 weeks ago after I came across your story (thank you for sharing) We are 4 weeks screen and electronic music free. My son was showing the expected progress up until last week with increased eye contact and clinginess however new stimming behaviors had appeared in addition to his old ones intensifying. I have been told by other parents with recovered children that they’ve heard of this happening and that it’s a way for the child to create dopamine kicks now that the screen is gone. Although the newest stims scare me ( aggressive head shake and today even hand biting) I have accepted that these might be a part of the recovery process.

However one thing that is worrying me a lot is that for a week now my son seems to be back in his little bubble. No name response, no eye contact and no interest in even looking at me at all. It worries me a lot since I thought we were on the right track. We are doing the same things; very few preschool hours, a lot of high quality social interaction and a lot of time spent outdoors. It’s like he is looking through me again and it breaks my heart. He sits alone and stares out and giggles by himself. I have started to question whether he actually have virtual autism as his sudden and rapid regression this past week suggests he is not recovering. I am sure he’s had no screen exposure at all

Have you experienced or heard of these types of bumps in the recovery period?


Hi Lara,

I will preface by letting you know that I am not a doctor or child development expert, but a mother who has been through this with her own son.

Yes I have heard of what you describe. There are lots of what seem like regressions during recovery. It’s similar to the new stims behavior; the child is seeking comfort and reverting back into their old habits. The brain seeks what is familiar to it, it’s comforting. These incidents of what look like regressions usually resolve after a couple of weeks and often this child will learn a new skill or two when they come out of it. These periods of regressive seeming behavior also happen around things like teething, changes in schedule, illness, developmental leaps, etc. Re-wiring their brain is exhausting for them and there are periods of regressive seeming behavior or what seem to be plateaus in the learning of new skills but very much is still going on behind the scenes inside their heads if you will. I have also heard of childrens’ behavior and symptoms becoming “worse” before they gets better during the early days of the screen removal protocol, where you are right now with your child. Good luck and keep us updated, Lara!


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