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Study Finds ‘Significant Association’ Between Boys With Autism and Screen Time

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Published: February 11, 2022
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Boys under 12 months exposed to screen time were more likely to develop autism by the age of three, according to a Japanese study conducted on 8,000 children. (Image: the UMF via Flickr CC BY 2.0)

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a condition starting in childhood that affects how one perceives and interacts with other people and their surroundings, with ‘spectrum’ meaning that there is a broad range of symptoms. While there is no cure for autism, parents’ attentive assistance can help autistic children develop and adjust to the world as they understand it. 

Although some claims have attributed autism to vaccines, antibiotics, and even sugar, no concrete evidence has confirmed a cause for autism; yet one recent study conducted by Japanese scientists is claimed to have found a ‘significant association’ between autistic kids and screen time. 

What could television and its more recent derivatives do to affect the development of autistic kids? Can it be a blessing or a curse?

Screen time and autism

The research made by the University of Yamanashi in Japan involved 84,030 children – all born between January 2011 and March 2014. 

According to the study, ASD was mostly found in the age-three children, accounting for 392 per 100 000 (0.4 percent). Among them, boys were discovered to be three times more likely to have the disorder than girls. 

Moreover, a questionnaire was done regarding the duration of the screen time of children aged one, with the questionnaire also done for the children aged three. An additional question was posed about whether the child was diagnosed with ASD.

The study showed that the diagnosis of ASD appeared to be more prevalent in children who have been exposed to the screen, with the ratio of 1.38 for children with a screen time of less than one hour; 2.16 for less than 2 hours; and 3.02 for four hours and above.

“Among boys, longer screen time at one year of age was significantly associated with autism spectrum disorder at three years of age,” the authors wrote.

In light of the results, the researchers concluded that as devices are used more and more, the effects on kids with ASD need to be reviewed and screen time needs to be managed.

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Lt. Col. Scott Campbell sits with his son, Ian. After struggling to get proper care for Ian, who is autistic, Campbell spearheaded a campaign for better treatment options for military families. (Image: Ian Graham via Flickr CC BY 2.5)

Despite the scientific efforts made, the research was only able to determine a “correlation,” backed by only “causational studies.” The researchers also admitted that the questionnaires they gave could be biased.

As such, Autism Research professor Andrew Whitehouse, of the Telethon Kids Institute, believes the findings made by the University of Yamanashi are “not very [significant].” He also claims that the study is not effective enough to show a link between screen time and autism diagnosis, since it could be factored by more than just watching television.

“Really, it is really important that we put these kinds of findings in context. This association doesn’t equal causation here.” Whitehouse said on Sunrise.

Several other studies did support the research, however, encouraging further studies on the subject. 

A 2020 study by the Drexel University College of Medicine showed that, out of the 2,152 children surveyed, those with screen time at the age of 12 months were linked to higher counts of ASD-like symptoms at the age of two years.

Another study by the University of Calgary in 2019 showed that similar results were found, with decreased optimal performances associated with greater screen times in children aged 24 and 36 months.

Reports on the side effects of COVID-19 also showed that screen time for children was higher due to being kept at home, forcing them to learn via devices.

Blessing or curse?

While screen time may be a concern, it is not to say that screen time is necessarily bad.

Children with ASD tend to find it hard to understand their surroundings and they often react immensely to any slight occurrences, ranging from noises to gestures and even simple words – they may find it difficult to differentiate between praise and rebuttal etc.

They also have a tendency to do the same thing over and over again, unable to properly adjust and interact with other people. Thus, digital devices can serve as a medium of escapism for kids with autism.

According to an article by Huffington Post, screen time can help kids with autism develop communication and social skills, while also improving learning abilities and anxiety recovery, as it can act as a reward to encourage behavior development, teach activities and aid in relaxation.

Dr. Paul Shattuck, a researcher from Washington University, claims that there are benefits to digital devices, including video games, which can help autistic players to satisfy their repetitive behaviors, since they are in control over their scenarios. Digital devices can also be used to help soothe and stimulate the mind, allowing kids to be more in control of their actions.

Even so, there is no denying that screen time has its inherent problems. As an article on Psychology Today pointed out, children with autism are still subject to the negative effects of too much screen time. 

Children with autism tend to have sleep disturbances, and screen time can block melatonin – the hormone in the brain associated with sleep. It also can cause inflammation of the nervous system and release more stress hormones. 

While the use of devices can help autistic children communicate in some ways, too much screen time may actually cause further hindrance in the already difficult social skill, as it limits the exposure to facial and body language, and lowers the attention span.

Considering the pros and cons, parents may find that there is a balance, whereby they can fulfill their child’s needs while regulating screen time based on their age.

They may provide a given amount of time for viewing – perhaps, three hours at most. They can also ensure that their children do not overuse their devices, especially before bed. As mentioned above, they may use screen time as a reward for their chores or other “boring” activities.

More importantly, parents must also be extra wary of what their children watch. In a world where a YouTube channel supposedly dedicated to Peppa Pig can contain the worst content imaginable, it is vital that parents keep their children safe from such crude things online.

Autism is not a disease that can be cured or prevented, and it develops at a very young age. What parents can do is to help their child develop skills, even partially through screen time. That way, when they grow up into working adults, they may be able to find new and different ways to get through the world, even though they perceive it differently from others.