Virtual Autism: A New Threat to Toddlers

Dr. Anne-Lise Ducanda manipulates toy ball

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 disappear when the children switch to playing with other kids and palpable toys, 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.”

Over the past five years, the doctors 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 themcharacteristics of Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Others were developmentally behind for their age.

Pediatrician holds up drawings by two 4-year-olds. The drawing by the child who is on screens a lot is much less detailed than the one drawn by a child who doesn't spend much time on screens.

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.

Study Proves Observable Brain Changes

Now, a new 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 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. 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. 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 sign of 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.

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.

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.

Screen time duration drops in Journal of Asian Psychiatry Study from Iran

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.

Life Balance Guidelines for Infants from the World Health Organization

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.”

Boy playing outside with toy trucks

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

Great grandfather plays on floor with great grandson

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.

Online Course Teaches Power of Attachment to Parents of Young Children

I invite you to check out this simple on-line course I have developed for parents of young children that teaches the importance of parent-child attachment, the power of play, and ways to limit your own and your child’s screen exposure.

In this TEDx talk, I discuss Attachment and Detachment as well as with Audrey Monke on her Sunshine Parenting podcast

To help plan your family’s time wisely, download this free checklist:

You can also use the American Academy of Pediatrics Media Time Calculator (which the demo here) to plan your child’s healthy 24-hour day.

And for inspiration, download a free PDF copy of the quick-read Durable Human Manifesto.

About the author: 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.

Learn more about this author on Google+.

17 thoughts on “Virtual Autism: A New Threat to Toddlers

  1. one girl child now she aged 25 month. she start to see mobile screen at age 9 month upto 2 hour per day and increase every day now at age of 24 month it become to see on tv and mobile is near 7-10 hour per day, now at age of 25 month come to know autism , so question is
    (1) is it due to constant seeing of tv screen like rhyme etc
    (2) is it curable ? or how recovery we get?

    1. Thank you very much for sharing this about your daughter. Though this is a brand new field of study, it is true that some doctors in the U.S. and other countries see that little children who watch hours per day of TV, YouTube, and other screen media can start having autistic-like symptoms. These doctors also see that when a child with these symptoms STOPS using or being around ANY screens and STARTS playing with toys and other children and reading books and talking to and playing a lot with parents, siblings and other caregivers, the autistic-like behaviors get much less or even go away. It only seems to take a few weeks after they stop being on or around screens that they return to being normal curious, lively little kids. A great book you can read about this is Reset Your Child’s Brain by Victoria Dunckley. M.D.. You can also visit this website: https://esmautism.wixsite.com/website. Doctors studying this problem advise that if your child does stop being around any screens for a month and there is very little or no reduction in autistic-like symptoms, it is probably time to see a specialist in Autism Spectrum Disorder. If you’d like to talk directly with an expert knowledgeable about “Virtual Autism”, please let me know and I will put you in touch.

    1. Thank you for reaching out. I talked to a Virtual Autism expert about your questions. She replied that how quickly a 21-month-old responds depends on several factors such as first screen exposure, amount of screen exposure, whether content has been viewed repetitively, and how much social interaction the child is getting on a daily basis. She adds that a child generally starts showing signs of social development such as improved eye contact and desire to be closer to care givers within the first month of complete screen removal and high social interaction in the second month. If you would like to contact the expert directly, please send your request along with a contact email address to info@durablehuman.com.

  2. Hallo
    My 9 year old son was diagnosed first with ADHD at 6, then ADD with autistic tendencies st age 7. He has watched tv from a young age. I used it to help him learn English which is my native language but we live in Germany. That was successful he is bilingual but I wonder a lot of I made a big mistake with the screen time. He started playing video games a few months ago and he developed big problems in school and became aggressive at home. He has hit me and his dad and thrown things. On one occasion he ran away. This is sudden and new behaviour and we were shocked. We stopped the video games completely and have now stopped tv too. His rages haven’t changed and he is so
    angry at us. He tells me everyday he hates me and I am ruining his life. It’s a very hard time. Are extreme reactions to screen time bans normal?

    1. Thank you for taking the time to get in touch about your son’s behavior. In short, the answer is Yes—it can be very difficult for a child to cope with new limits on screen media use, but research shows most children will adjust within a few weeks.
      To help you with this challenging quest, several experts I consulted suggest you read an outstanding book by psychiatrist Victoria Dunckley, M.D.: Reset Your Child’s Brain: A Four-Week Plan to End Meltdowns, Raise Grades, and Boost Social Skills by Reversing the Effects of Electronic Screen-Time. Dr. Dunckley has tips to help you prepare all members of the household for a 4-week break from screen use.: https://amzn.to/2TkU614
      To help you understand the effects of media viewing in early childhood, watch this TEDx talk by pediatric researcher Dimitri Christakis, M.D.: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BoT7qH_uVNo&feature=youtu.be

      You might also want to take the Durable U online course for new (and renewing) parents which explains how and why to help your son have a more 3-D, 360-degree full-sensory childhood. The course also suggests easy ways parents can contain their own screen media use so they spend more time talking to, listening to, and playing with their children, who are in such need of their eye contact and attention. See: https://durablehuman.com/DurableU.
      Finally, if you would like to be referred to a counselor specializing in this area, please email your request to info@durablehuman.com. Wishing you the best of luck as you educate yourself in this area. Please write back if you have more questions.

  3. Hi,

    My only daughter who is now 30 months , shows most of the autistic symptoms. She watched TV and other screens while she was only 6 months of age. After the negative feedback from her Preschool about her attention , concentration and social skill, we consulted doctor and diagnosed her with ASD features. She watched on average of 6 hours of screen till date. One of the doctor even said it is induced from screen exposure and will be completely curable.

    How much time will take for her to recover and the symptoms to be disappeared ?

    1. It sounds like your daughter is on the road to recovery! Since The Durable Human cannot give specific medical advice, we suggest asking your doctor how long he or she expects it will take for the autistic-like symptoms to subside. You could also consult “Reset Your Child’s Brain” , a book on the subject by Victoria Dunckley, M.D.

  4. Hi. My son who is 35 months old showing many autistic symptoms . He used to watch cartoons and videos in TV from the age of 1 year( more than 5 hour). Now after stopping all screen time before 1 month and sending him a preschool brought change in eye contact and response when calling his name etc . He spoke a 2 word sentence in last day. Apart from that he didn’t speak anything like that before. Only words he learnt from videos he used to tell us and meaningless language. What can I expect in future? He has got a speech therapist at his preschool aswell

    1. Thank you for sharing the information about your son. It appears he is improving now that you have stopped screen exposure and started speech therapy. Language delay is a typical symptom of early screen overuse. With continued speech help and your resolve to have him keep playing, talking, and reading with you and others should keep him on a healthy trajectory!

    2. Hello.My daughter is also suffering from the same problems. She is 27 months old and have watched rhymes since she was 9 months old. She speaks meaningless language doesn’t responds to her name and says only those words which she has grasped from rhymes. 2 weeks before we have stopped her screen fully. I would like to seek advice from you to improve her communication skills. Could you please share the changes you are watching and seeing in your child.

  5. My daughter is diagnosed with mild autism at 30 months. She used to watch her rhymes on laptop and also get less maternal attention due to research work, so we started speech therapy, now she is 34 months, there is no screen time from two months, her eye contact has improved but speech is not much improved, what to do.

  6. Hello,

    I have twin boys who have just turned 3, both diagnosed with autism very early, before age 2.

    No one has specifically mentioned screen time to me beyond the usual vague stuff about limiting all children’s screen time, because it’s generally regarded to be unhealthy. No one we have seen has placed any extra emphasis at all on reducing screen time. Or even asked us about it.

    We showed them screens from a young age. With twins, we were worried about them being bored and lacking stimulation. We don’t have much family, and so couldn’t give both boys constant attention. As such we actually made an effort to find them TV shows they responded to, that they could enjoy while sitting in their bouncer chairs.

    Looking back this is clearly the worst thing we could’ve done and I believe it has affected them.

    At the time I didn’t think their development was being affected. A lack of speech and eye contact didn’t bother me as I didn’t know any different, I just thought they were normal. Until my wife invited round another friend of hers with twins of the same age and I was shocked at the level of eye contact and interest the children showed in adults.

    We didn’t at first put our boys into nursery, as my wife doesn’t work and I work from home. So we didn’t think we needed it. But the result is, our boys wouldn’t get to go outside much and watched a lot of TV. Easily more than six hours a day.

    About eight months ago they started going to nursery and we have made effort to do more, and they both make more eye contact and like playing and listening to us read books, but they’re still not talking and we still haven’t managed to not have the TV on in the background for comfort.

    At this point, after reading about this subject, I do believe my boys’ type of autism is in line with the ‘Virtual’ type that is caused by screens. And the fact my boys are making more and more eye contact and don’t seem to have the really withdrawn type of autism found in more severe cases, leads me to believe it’s the screens that have caused this.

    From what I am describing, would you agree? Or am I kidding myself and looking for easy answers? I am going to shut off screens and make all the effort I can to play and socialise with them. Hopefully it will work and they will finally be able to speak to me. I want nothing more in the world right now than to hear their voices.

  7. Screen time fasting which is recommended by Dr Victoria Dunnkley helped my kids recover better.
    I have 7 year old twins diagnosed with combination of developmental delays ADHD,SPD, speech delay and one was on ASD, but not anymore. Two years ago I put them on the Nemechek Protocol which has worked great for us BUT to a certain degree, not completely, not without screen time fast. The progress was going on slowly but some of the symptoms were coming back such us stimming, which meant anxiety. The speech improved, eye contact improved, SPD improved (they are not sensitive to certain sounds anymore and I can even cut their hair without problem). Also meltdowns decreased, anger decreased , stimming was gone 90%, hyperactivity decreased and attention improved so they can sit down and do their school work. But still there was a missing link as I said above. About a year ago we did evaluation, and psychologist advised us to remove all the screens and not to let kids watch even educational videos. I agreed and we did that. I was surprised to see that stimming was gone 100%, no stimming was present. But, after two months occupational therapist started giving them as an AWARD to watch the videos on her phone. Later I found out this type of award is part of ABA method. At first I was not aware of those awards, she told me later. I still did not know of all these researches about screen time and I was only following advise of psychologist. At that time speech therapist also encouraged us to let kids watch educational videos because it is needed for their language development and learning… Ok, I let the kids watch tv again and guess what? The stimming came back. I still did not know of the research and I have not read Dr Victoria’s book. I was wondering for months why the stimming came back. Because they were still on the Nemechek Protocol, I was blaming the quality of omega 3, then maybe it’s olive oil, maybe this,maybe that… Until, we moved…No tv, no computer… Kids changed, they became different,more social, they were playing, they did not have as many meltdowns as before, speech improved, stimming still present, but it is more out of habit, I don’t see anxiety. I was wondering what happened. I started researching about whether screen time has any connections with behavior and found out about virtual autism and I have read the book that was mentioned “Reset your child’s brain”. Kids are still screen time free and still on the Nemechek Protocol which helps their body and brain to better recover and they continue to improve in all areas cognitively, socially, learning quicky, vocabulary is much richer… I can’t thank enough Dr. Victoria Dunkley and Dr Patrick Nemechek for giving me hope that my kids can recover, and they are recovering with few simple changes. Many parents give up on the Nemechek Protocol because they think it is not working. It is working, but you need to remove screens as well and both methods will work much better and the brain will recover much faster. Thank you for writing articles such as this to bring awareness of dangers of screen time!

    1. Wow – what a wonderful testimonial to how removing screens can make a life-changing difference. It is interesting to note that, at least in your situation, addressing the child’s microbiome through the Nemechek Protocol only went so far. You point out the difficulty of staying on top of all the opportunities your twins have to use screens. You don’t necessarily suspect the therapists themselves (inadvertently and with no harm intended) are to blame! Have you developed any strategies for speaking with all folks in contact with your kids about this issue? Probably a good idea to get it out in the open with everyone.

      1. Yes, I did tell the therapists to discontinue those awards, but I had to repeat several times. If I can survive with two hyper kids without wifi, tv, smartphone and tablet, they can, too 🙂
        Regarding the Nemechek Protocol, it does work truly. It is really difficult to go through all the stages of recovery, but it is worth. My kids in two years on the protocol went from non verbal to verbal, one is on the level of his age, the other is behind but he can speak in short sentences. I stayed out of support groups, because for short period being in one of those groups I realized there is barely support present and there are a lot of people coming into groups who discourage others, suggest other supplements, and treatments. The Protocol addresses not only microbiome but also inflammation within body which allows recovery. It works slowly as I said, but hey, what’s few years comparing to whole life if you’ll get functional child who can later take care of himself.
        All the best.

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