Virtual Autism Alert: Dangers of Excessive Screen Time for Your Toddlers’ Development

In my clinic, a 3-year-old child was brought to my attention, whose parents suspecting possible signs of autism. He did not respond to his name when I addressed him and kept crying. Despite my attempts to engage him by repeatedly calling his name and offering colorful toys, he remained unresponsive, emitting loud sounds, while moving around the room. The situation made it challenging for me to communicate with his mother about his condition. I even tried to soothe him with chocolates, but with no success. At that moment, his mother took out her smartphone and played a video, which she then handed to the child. Remarkably, the same child who had been difficult to manage just moments earlier suddenly settled down and sat quietly in a chair.

His attention was completely captivated, and his restlessness transformed into stillness as he fixated on the digital wonders before him. It was evident that this screen held a unique power over him. Subsequent conversation with the parents unveiled that this captivating screen had been an integral part of the child’s daily routine since he was merely 5 months old. On average, he spent an astonishing 7-8 hours per day engrossed in digital devices, particularly videos. Upon my further clinical assessment, although the child exhibited symptoms like autism, they were not as prominent as those seen in classical autism.

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This case represents just one of the many similar instances I have encountered recently in my clinic. Could this be a glimpse of a new phenomenon, known as Virtual Autism in India!!! A clinical psychologist from Romania, in 2018 first noticed the impact of virtual environment (tablet, smartphone, TV, computer, laptop, etc.) on the children aged 0 to 3 years.

I also had a lot of cases where I identified the cause (virtual environment consumption), told parents to eliminate this factor, and in 2-3 weeks when I went to the evaluation, many parents said, “Two or three weeks ago, my child did not do this, but now it does.”

Zamfir Marius Teodor

The Impact of Screen Time on Early Childhood Development

Multiple research findings highlight screen time’s impact on early childhood language development, cognition, and behaviour. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) found links between excessive screen use and disrupted sleep patterns in children. In India, smartphone internet access has rapidly increased, reaching 66.16% in 2022 and projected to hit 96.11% by 2040, with cheap availability of 4G and now 5G devices. The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated internet use, with increased video streaming, online news, online gaming, and online shopping.

Kids from this generation are introduced to screens very early, causing significant concerns for their development. Some parents believe smartphones enhance children’s intelligence but overlook downsides like decline in outdoor play and a shift from traditional outdoor sports to digital games. This has led to reduced outdoor activities and using screens as mealtime distractions has become a common practice among parents, as mobile screens calm children and make eating easier.

Also Read: Babbling: An Initial Sign of Child Development

What is Autism?

A child with Autistic Spectrum Disorder displays a subset of symptoms that include difficulty in relating to others, a lack of age-appropriate responses to changes, inadequate emotional responses to different situations, inability to imitate others, sensory sensitivities, poor eye contact, speech delays, and tendencies towards hyperactivity or inactivity.

Strikingly similar symptoms have been observed in children who spend more than 6 hours a day using screens during their developmental phases. Dr. Bhismadev Chakrabarti from the University of Reading highlights the lack of comprehensive data regarding the prevalence of autism in India. The number of autistic children in the country is on the rise. Dr. Chakrabarti emphasizes the urgent need for a national autism program in India to accurately assess the current situation of the autistic population.

Also Read: On Building Smart Culture for Using Smart Phone

Virtual autism – what is it?

Virtual autism is a condition where a child of 0-3 years shows symptoms like classical autism, but the cause of such symptoms is excessive exposure to the virtual environment. It should not be confused with classical autism because virtual autism can be addressed with minimal intervention. If a child displays autistic-like behaviours and has excessive screen time, removing the screen would drastically reduce their autistic-like symptoms. Parents should expect to observe noticeable changes within two weeks of screen removal. If such changes aren’t evident, it is advisable to seek guidance from professionals experienced in the field of autism.

Mobile screen is dangerous for children of age below five.

Early exposure to the virtual environment deprives children of interaction with the real world. This deprivation makes the child avoid eye contact, show repetitive behaviours, and be less willing to interact with the real world. One parent said, “I gave him the phone to keep him engaged since he was five months of age; and now he just wants the phone and doesn’t respond to his name, uses non-verbal communication to indicate for the food, and needs a screen to eat”. Parents should be aware of the following signs for child of one and a half years of age:

  • Do not point their finger at objects.
  • Do not answer their name.
  • Do not understand simple language.
  • Do not have a symbolic play like peek-a-boo.
  • Do not have eye contact.

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If you see these signs in your child, you should contact professionals working with autism. This is a red flag for society to think wisely about using virtual environments and providing them with human interactions. Be aware before giving the phone to the infants.

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