Screen Time and Autism

Screen time – understanding the positives and negatives and regulating your family’s usage of it can be overwhelming. You may feel as though your daily life, and your children’s daily lives, revolve around screens and digital media. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has created screen time recommendations for parents and caregivers of children. The type of screen time that the AAP recommends families limit is considered recreational. Recreational screen time includes digital media like television shows, video games, and various forms of social media.

The AAP (2016) suggests families follow the digital-media guidelines listed below for children:

  • Birth to 18 months. Avoid digital-media use.
  • 18 to 24 months. Use only high-quality programming, and view the programming with your child. Try to avoid letting your child use digital media on their own.
  • 2 to 5 years. Limit screen time to 1 hour per day. Continue using only high-quality programming. Use media as an opportunity to discuss with your child what they are seeing and doing on screen; make connections, if possible, to the real world; and remind them the screen world is not reality.
  • 5 to 18 years. During these years, you should pay close attention to not just how much screen time your child gets but to when they are using screens. Ensure your child is getting a full night’s sleep (i.e., 9 – 12 hours a night for ages 6 – 12 and 8 – 10 hours a night for ages 13-18), and they are engaging in at least 1 hour of physical activity a day. In addition, you may wish to instill a “no screen time” directive during family mealtimes or other family times, like game night. Finally, help your child develop a period of “downtime” that does not involve screens, like taking a walk in the park, reading a book, or writing thoughts in a journal.

The AAP (2016) also suggests that families avoid fast-paced programs, programming that has violent subject matter, and applications that contain a lot of distracting content like flashing advertisements and excessive noise. Families should turn off devices if they are not in use and avoid using media as a way to calm their child. Furthermore, screens should not be in children’s bedrooms, and screen time before bedtime should be monitored and limited. Using screens immediately before bedtime can lead to sleep issues.

To help regulate screen time usage, families can create and download a Family Media Plan here.

Types of Screen Time

Not all screen time is bad. There are digital activities your child may engage in that are necessary and appropriate uses of technology. For example, with the increased use of digital devices within the classroom, your child may need to use a computer during school hours or use a tablet to complete their homework or read their assigned classwork materials. Additionally, an activity, like video chatting with an absent parent, a distant relative, or friends who have moved away, is a positive way to use technology. This type of use allows for social interaction even when there is a physical distance between a loved one and your child.

Using digital media can have additional positive uses. For example, for children who struggle when interacting in social settings and communicating with others, like children with Autism, using digital media can help them manage their interactions and have downtime to handle daily, new, or even challenging situations.

Autism Spectrum Disorder

Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) can have “significant social, communication, and behavioral challenges” (Indiana Resource Center for Autism, 2022). As a result, part of a child’s evidence-based communication and social intervention practices may include the following screen-related options (Lofland, 2014):

  • Video Modeling – records and displays a visual model of a targeted behavior or skill.
  • Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS) – teaches a child to communicate by exchanging a picture for the object they need or desire.
  • Voice Output Communication Aids (VOCA) – a portable electronic device that can generate a digital speech output.

Reminder: These types of screen time would not be included in the recommendations for limiting recreational screen time as they are used for daily functioning and communication

Using Media Constructively

Children with ASD are at a higher risk for using technology in a way to “sensory-seek,” which means they use technology to view highly arousing or violent content in order to get enough sensory stimulation(Lane & Radesky, 2019). However, with the correct monitoring and use, parents can use recreational media in a constructive way for children affected by Autism. Please see below.

Television Shows can be used by parents to help model positive behaviors and social interaction for their children (Connick, 2021). Children with ASD can have issues with communication, social interaction, and behavior. By watching shows with your child and discussing what the characters are doing, like sharing or playing with other children, you can help to open discussions with your child (even if it is you doing the majority of the talking) about how interactions work in a way that is interesting and less stressful for your child.

A few television shows that may be beneficial for your child can be found here.

Video Games (that are age appropriate) can be used to connect children to others because the individuals engaged in the game share common interests, and they can interact with each other or others in a comfortable setting around a common activity. By removing any face-to-face interaction, which can often be intimidating for children with ASD, less stress is placed on the child as moves can be redone or repeated, and mistakes can be corrected more easily (Smith, 2016).

Games that may interest your child will depend on their interests and ability to learn how to play the game(s) in question. Popular games such as Minecraft, Pokémon, Legend of Zelda, and Mario Bros. offer opportunities to engage and learn in a fun environment that can be shared and discussed with other peers (Kulman, 2020).

Even if you can’t or do not have an interest in playing the game with your child, you can, and should, involve yourself in their interest by watching them play and asking questions. This can help to foster a connection with you child and positively contribute to the social aspect of the game because your child learns how to answer your questions and practices interacting with you.

Social Media, when monitored and discussed, can also help to broaden social interactions and relationships between your child and your child’s peers. A study conducted by researchers at the Yale Department of Psychiatry and Yale Child Study Center has shown that children with ASD are able to create friendships with high quality by using social media (Van Schalkwyk et al., 2017). Although more research needs to be completed, it is believed that “social media may be a way for adolescents with ASD without significant anxiety to improve the quality of their friendships” (Van Schalkwyk et al., 2017).

Ultimately, screen time for your child is going to depend on what works best for you, your family, and your child. However, there are useful tools for children who struggle with a disability, like ASD that limits their ability to interact in social situations. Using digital resources that are available to your child can be beneficial. Remember, monitor your child’s screen time usage, role model appropriate screen time behaviors, and use safe digital media practices. You can learn more about general internet safety here.

References

American Academy of Pediatrics. (2016, November 1). Where we stand: Screen time. https://www.healthychildren.org/English/family-life/Media/Pages/Where-We-Stand-TV-Viewing-Time.aspx

Connick, R. (2021, April 28). Three great shows for children with Autism and their parents. Autism Parenting Magazine. https://www.autismparentingmagazine.com/autism-three-great-shows/

Council on Communications and Media, Hill, D., Ameenuddin, N., Chassiakos, Y. R., Cross, C., Hutchinson, J., Levine, A., Boyd, R., Mendelson, R., Moreno, M., & Swanson, W. S. (2016). Media and young minds. Pediatrics, 138(5), e20162591. https://doi.org/10.1542/peds.2016-2591

Council on Communications and Media, Hill, D., Ameenuddin, N., Chassiakos, Y. R., Cross, C., Hutchinson, J., Levine, A., Boyd, R., Mendelson, R., Moreno, M., & Swanson, W. S. (2016). Media use in school-aged children and adolescents. Pediatrics, 138(5), e20162592. https://doi.org/10.1542/peds.2016-2592

Indiana Resource Center for Autism. (2022). Learn about autism. https://www.iidc.indiana.edu/irca/learn-about-autism/index.html

Kulman, R. (2022, August 12). Making popular video games good for kids affected by autism. Autism Parenting Magazine. https://www.autismparentingmagazine.com/video-games-for-autism-kids/

Lane, R., & Radesky, J. (2019). Digital media and autism spectrum disorders: Review of evidence, theoretical concerns, and opportunities for intervention. Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics40(5), 364–368. https://doi.org/10.1097/DBP.0000000000000664

Lofland, K. (2014). Evidence-based practices for effective communication and social intervention. Indiana Resource Center for Autism. https://www.iidc.indiana.edu/irca/articles/evidence-based-practices-for-effective-communication-and-social-intervention.html

Smith, H. (2016, October 14). How video games benefit students with special needs. Asperger / Autism Network. https://www.aane.org/video-games-benefit-students-special-needs/

Van Schalkwyk, G. I., Marin, C. E., Ortiz, M., Rolison, M., Qayyum, Z., McPartland, J. C., Lebowitz, E. R., Volkmar, F. R., & Silverman, W. K. (2017). Social media use, friendship quality, and the moderating role of anxiety in adolescents with autism spectrum disorder. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders47(9), 2805–2813. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10803-017-3201-6

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