Pediatricians are alarmed that babies and toddlers who spend hours a day on phones, tablets, and around TVs can develop autistic-like symptoms. The newly-identified condition has been termed Virtual Autism. The good news: the symptoms of Virtual Autism often disappear when the children stop all screen exposure and switch to face-to-face contact, reading, and playing with care-givers, other children, and non-electronic toys.
Two doctors in France are leading an awareness campaign about Virtual Autism, which 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.”
Over the preceding five years, the doctors had noticed 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). Others were developmentally behind for their age.
Drawing on left by a 4-year-old who spends little time on screen media. Drawing on right by a slightly older 4-year-old who was highly screen-exposed..
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 the children’s screen exposure, the ASD symptoms would almost always disappear.
Various studies in Romania have come to similar conclusions, one stating “sensory-motor and socio-affective deprivation caused by the consumption of more than 4 hours/day of virtual environment can activate behaviours and elements similar to those found in children diagnosed with ASD.”
Because this phenomenon has been so often observed in Romania, screen withdrawal there is now a therapeutic protocol for early ASD and a campaign is also underway there to inform parents about the problem.
Romanian psychologist Marius Zamfir was among the first to identify Virtual Autism. He worries about lack of motivation among children exposed to excessive screen content. “Children’s brains are used to getting pleasure without making any effort at all,” he says in this video made for the Romanian public information campaign.
Study Proves Observable Brain Changes
A study of toddlers’ brains bears out these behavioral indicators.
Publishing their work in JAMA Pediatrics, researchers at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital have shown that the amount of white matter appears to be reduced in the brains of young children who spend more than two hours a day on screens. The brain’s white matter aids in thought processing and organization, as well as performing other vital functions.
“Think of white matter as cables, sort of like telephone lines that are connecting the various parts of the brain so they can talk to each other,” Dr. John Hutton told CNN.
“These are tracks that we know are involved with language and literacy,” he continued. “And these were the ones relatively underdeveloped in these kids with more screen time.”
47 healthy toddlers were studied. Screen exposure among them ranged from zero to about five hours a day.
In their report, the study authors did not make a connection to virtual autism nor did they specifically mention autistic-like symptoms.
Astronomical Rise in Autism Incidence
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. was 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. In late 2018, a new report based on US government health statistics showed the number may be closer to one child in every 40.
Until very recently, “AV (audio-visual) exposure in infancy has been overlooked” as a risk factor for autism, 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.
In early 2020, JAMA Pediatrics published a Drexel analysis co-authored by Heffler which found that babies who viewed TV and videos at age one had a slightly greater chance of displaying autistic-like symptoms than non-TV watching babies by the age of two. Conversely, the study found, “Less screen exposure and more parent-child play as 12 months of age were associated with fewer ASD-like symptoms at 2 years of age.”
At the first ever Children’s Screen Time Action Network conference, I happened to meet Dr. Heffler’s research associate, Lori Frome, M.Ed. Frome is an Early Interventionist who discovered, also by chance, that the symptoms in one of her ASD patients disappeared after her screen exposure was curtailed.
Frome then tried the same treatment on her own son, who also had an ASD diagnosis. In only a few screen-free months, as Frome describes in this video, her son had “a complete developmental trajectory change in the core deficits of ASD.” In other words, her son became developmentally normal for his age.
Screen media has a “very addictive power,” says Dr. Ducanda. “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.”
Dr. Andrew Doan, an ophthalmologist and neuroscientist, produced this animated video to show how watching screen media can rewire a child’s brain. In this TEDx talk, I discuss the importance of parent-child Attachment and how digital devices can interfere.
Avoiding Virtual Autism
So, what’s a parent to do? For one thing, to respect a child’s basic developmental needs. For kids to learn to speak, reason, and develop crucial social skills, they need face-to-face interaction with loving people and to use all their senses as often as they can.
A new study from Iran proves the power of parent interaction and play. Investigators selected 12 toddlers with autistic-like symptoms who had spent half their waking hours on screen devices. Their parents were then given 8 weeks of lessons in how to play with their children, with an emphasis on eye-to-eye contact, loving touch, and continuous communication. While the parents applied these lessons at home, objects that had absorbed the children’s attention were taken away, including digital devices.
At the end of the two-month period, the children’s screen time had shrunk to a bare minimum, their ASD-like repetitive behaviors were greatly reduced, and brain studies showed ASD-like readings had returned to nearly normal.
One of the study’s chief investigators told me consistency is the key. For the intervention to work, the parents had to stick with high-touch, high-talk interaction all day every day during the children’s waking hours. He says researchers can now confidently recommend that children under age three should spend their time playing and interacting face-to-face with caring adults and not using digital devices.
The American Academy of Pediatrics agrees that babies and toddlers need to spend full time exploring their world without interruption by screens, except for the occasional Facetime with Grandma. Preschoolers shouldn’t have 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.
The World Health Organization says, for the sake of their health and proper brain formation, children under age one should have no exposure to screens.
World Health Organization Infant Guidelines (Under Age One)
Early Childhood is a Once in a Lifetime Opportunity
When you look through Today’s lens, early childhood has become a rarified, once-in-a-lifetime pre-digital opportunity. As I write in The Durable Human Manifesto: Practical Wisdom for Living and Parenting in the Digital Age, each child begins life as a “wild human”—as free and unplugged as any other animal.
“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, experts including Dr. Ducanda and Lori Frome recommend that you:
- Talk and read with your child every day as much as possible
- Provide materials, toys, and games that require manipulation, such as a play dough, finger paints, and a play kitchen
- Go outside at least once a day and make sure the child has time to play alone and with other children
- Not use screens when you are with children
- Not hand a phone to your baby or young child (and keep the screen locked, just in case)
- Keep 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
- Explain to family members and caregivers why these measures are essential to a child’s healthy 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 symptoms do 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 household member. 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 with minimal time on screens, the symptoms may never emerge.
Virtual Autism Resources
This site has links to Virtual Autism research and researchers.
Watch my interview with Lori Frome M. Ed. who explains how to detect, treat, and avoid Virtual Autism:
Download Lori Frome’s specially-curated Parent Resource List from the box on this page.
Finally, in this simple on-line course, I teach parents why and how to create loving bonds with their babies and toddlers as well as to maximize their brain development and language learning.
About the author:
Besides being the mom of three practicing durable humans, DurableHuman.com founder Jenifer Joy Madden is a certified digital wellness instructor, 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 and The Durable Human Manifesto.
Her work has informed millions on ABC News and Discovery Health Channel, in The Washington Post, Readers Digest and other news outlets.