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Virtual Autism: A New Threat to Toddlers

Dr. Anne-Lise Ducanda manipulates toy ball

Pediatricians are alarmed that babies and toddlers who spend hours a day on phones, tablets, and around TVs can develop autistic-like symptoms, in a newly-identified condition 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 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 and a campaign is also underway there to inform parents about the problem.

Romanian psychologist Marius Zamfir, who was among the first to identify Virtual Autism, coined the term. 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.  

Meanwhile, a study released in 2022 of more than 84,000 Japanese babies and their mothers found that “among boys, longer screen time at 1 year of age was significantly associated with autism spectrum disorder at 3 years of age.”

“With the rapid increase in device usage,” concluded the authors, “it is necessary to review the health effects of screen time on infants and to control excessive screen time.” 

Study Proves Observable Brain Changes

A study of toddlers’ brains seems to bear out the behavioral indicators.

Cincinnati Children’s Hospital researchers show evidence in JAMA Pediatrics that young children who spend more than two hours a day on screens have less brain white matter. 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.

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 should have no solo use of screens. Screen interaction should be limited to video calls with loved ones, with a caregiver standing by.  

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 agrees that, 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.

Virtual Autism Resources

This site has links to Virtual Autism research and researchers.  

Watch webinars with Lori Frome M. Ed. who explains how to detect, treat, and avoid Virtual Autism: 

See latest webinar on YouTube:

Webinar Welcome Page "Virtual Autism. What to Look For. What to Do."

See previous webinar on YouTube: 

Welcome screen Virtual Autism webinar "Learn More About Virtual Autism"

Download Lori Frome’s specially-curated Parent Resource List from the box on this page.

Finally, in this simple online 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.

Note: This post was last updated on July 23, 2022

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.

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Lisa

Hi! Link to webinar seems to be broken. How can I register? Thank you.

Yasmeen Hejji

Hello
Unfortunately i put my daughter front of the tv when she was 6 months
after i noticed the repetitive behaviors , zero words and doesn’t respond to her name .
I stopped the screen time since 6 months
She sleep better but nothing else
Even now she doesn’t respond to her name
No words
Zero progress
I am very disappointed

Malika

Hi yasmeen, how old was your child when you noticed this behaviors? And how old was she when you stopped screens? I stopped screens for 7 months now. My child was affected since 1.2 months but I didn t know for autism. He was with only screens until he was 2.3 . Some Repetitive behaviors decreased considerably. rocking and visual stimming decreased too but still there. My child was developed obsessed visual stimming to numbers and alphabets.

Fatima

Ayna, i will emphasize u ask lori and admin here all the questions, trust me i read every comment, watched their vidoes, did all what they told me, it has helped alot. And like admin said, it isn’t gona happen in a day or two. May daughter took 2 years off screen, but i didn’t know it was being off screen i thought its the daycare and school, with my son, i did exactly what Lori suggested, zero screen, zero back ground meida, no song, cell phones were put high up, i did exactly what lori suggested, i wud take him to kitchen make dough with him, mke bread with him. Give him egg to beat, he broke so many eggs, but learnt how to crack and mix, i wud send him and my daughter to bayh, they wud sit in bath tub, play with each other, infact during one of tbis batg activity he learnt how to say no. Follow the advice being shared here. My son is still not there but its gona take time. It isn’t gone happen over night. Continue ur efforts. Fmy emphasis again, please follow what Lori and admin are telling u, it has helped us immensely. I am so grateful to them for steering us in the right direction. We owe them.

Omi

Hi Amanika,

My daughter is experiencing the same behaviour as you mentioned in your comments please guide us. We stopped her screen time 0 screen time for about 2 months now and she goes out to play daily. She is 2 years now but no words yet we are really worried now please help. Please if and how can I contact experienced people here. My email is omi426@gmail.com thank you

Fatima

If i may add, my son went through all the stages of recovery from virtual autism as Lori mentioned. Exactly how she explained. Exactly like the boy whom Lori always s mentions about how she got the idea of virtual autism. So those who deny it can deny it, its a reality, i ve suffered with both my kids with it. Whether anyone accepts it or nit.
Regards.

Ayna

Hey Fatima ! Is There any way i Can contact You ?

Fatima

Hello. I am going to write a very detailed explanation here. I didn’t know about autism, let alone virtual autism, i am a medical specialist by profession and have worked in peads as well, yet i had no knowledge of autism. My daughter was a victim of screen over exposure and i didn’t even knkw. She was odd, she had all the red flags for autism, her school pointed out as well, me being ignorant and them being not very open about the word, i remained in the dark. But my daughter was very social as she started daycare at 3, she gradually caught up with her peers, she was neurotypical at age 5. My son was born and me being igonorant and in residency ignored him alltogather. He was on screen, but it got worst in covid. he had TV to watch, and that too rhymes, he had words but all which were in rhymes. Gradually his hand held device increased. It when he was 3 years and 6 month old we took him to peads neurologist for his speech where he did his MCHAT and found him to be at medium risk. We put him in aggressive ABA and speech therapy. He had no sensory issues and far better fine and motor and gross motor skills compared fo his peers and his own sister. 7 months into therpay he is alot verbel. Understands all our commands, still has trouble with complex language, he tries to make bew sentences. Is going to inclusive montessori and doing gud there. He is 4 years and 4 months now. He was put off all kind of media, and his social interaction was markedly increased. I implore all of u, please take screens away from ur kids. Please. Both my kids are victims of screens. I often blame myself and my husband blames himself for neglecting our kid, but it was never intentional. He still has behavior issues. He still has impulsivity, he is still socially awkward. But we have hopes he will catch up. This page has helped me so much. My son is a totally different boy now. I am indebted to the admin and lori. Screen is such an important and aggressive environmental factor that it over rides a kid’s normal genetic make even. I hope and pray that all our kids overcome the effects of screens and catch up with their life.

Anamika

Thanks a lot, dear Fatima for giving many parents like me hope and great applause for your efforts to spread the awareness. My son is recently diagnosed with the risk of autism spectrum disorder. He is 22 months old on May 15. I suspect that this is Virtual Autism and we have stopped TV and any screen for the last five weeks and spent 3-4 hours in the park and outdoor locations daily.

We have stopped TV and any screen for the last five weeks along with spending 3-4 hours in the park and outside locations daily. During this time he has stopped many behaviors. The main priorities we have is receptive speech and social aspects. Please update us with your kind suggestions. I will be highly thankful.

My baby makes throws or falls off everything in his reach from his eye level to follow its speed and noise. Many times two similar objects with both hands. In fact the same with sand and soil too, he makes it slowly goes off his wrist full of soil/sand from both hands. So it seems a repetitive behavior aspect and how can I creatively turn it for him.

Anamika

Thanks a lot for your insightful reply. Would work on both of these directions now 🙂 Best Regards!

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