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.