If screen time is a problem for most parents, it will be more so for those who have children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD). Typically, these children are drawn to repeating patterns over and over again.
It is their way of understanding the information they receive. In turn, the digital world, thanks to its concrete and sequenced logic, opens up a highly attractive space for them. Due to the time they dedicate to repeating tasks, they quickly understand the operating logic of the virtual world, successfully managing to stand out.
According to the Childwise report in 2016, ASD children spend 60% more time than their siblings playing video games. Due to his difficulty in controlling his impulses; They are therefore at greater risk of developing problematic use of screens. (1)
Emotional dysregulation, sleep and cyberbullying
Surely, we have all seen children with tantrums or upset as a result of being disconnected from their favorite screens. When it is difficult to regulate the emotional state, we speak of dysregulation. But what happens at that moment? His body is under a chemical effect that started when he turned on the video game. Heart rate and blood pressure rise, your body releases a large amount of adrenaline; which puts him in a state of agitation and aggressiveness. He’s on high alert but too involved in his game to tune out. ASD children often present an imbalance in their dopamine system, which means that it is more difficult for them to achieve motivation and feel the pleasure of success on their own. The use of video games and social networks activate the brain reward circuit, raising dopamine and adrenaline levels well above normal levels. This triggers an alteration in the ability to empathize with others, increases stress and anxiety in response to the dopamine, adrenaline and cortisol that has been released during the video game experience.
According to a study published by Pediatrics Magazine in 2013 (2) between 50 and 80% of children with autism experience significant problems falling asleep and maintaining it. This is because they are low in the hormone melatonin, which helps induce and regulate sleep. From the above, it is necessary to point out that the unregulated use of video games alters sleep patterns, which subtracts hours of rest.
Some of the challenges that ASD children experience in reality, they also have in the virtual world. It is more complex for them to understand the social contexts in which virtual relationships occur. A study conducted by McAffe in 2014 found that ASD children are 16 times more likely to be victims of cyberbullying due to the difficulty they have in understanding the contexts in which social relationships occur on the web. They have greater difficulty understanding the substance of text messages or comments on social networks. (4)
Screen time is one of the biggest concerns regarding ASD children. The more difficult the real world is for them, the more attractive the virtual world seems to them. Video games and social networks offer them the opportunity to meet and make friends more easily than in reality, a situation that is not without risk. Problems arise when screens replace real world activities.
Guidance for parents
Parents must be attentive and understand that the opportunities of the digital world increase throughout life, which makes it necessary to regulate them from an early age. For them, it is necessary to have a very limited and rigorous family plan for the use of screens. We recommend being very specific and helping them regulate connection time with regulation strategies such as: putting a clock in front of the screen, having parental and time controls, establishing activity tables organized by day and time with them.
I have rarely been in favor of the prohibition, but in the case of ASD children, it is very complex to put the same rules on them that are appropriate for other siblings. I recommend being very rigorous in accessing devices and I suggest a partial ban on digital activities that may cause negative effects on their development. (mainly social networks and online video games).
Regulating connection time and avoiding dependence or addiction to screens will be key to promoting real social skills that are a priority for them and preparing them for the future.
It is also extremely relevant to promote sleep routines, even maintaining weekends, in order to protect the quality of sleep and thus facilitate its normal development. All the time they spend in front of a screen watching videos on YouTube or playing online is time they lose learning to do other fundamental tasks for their development.
The well-managed virtual world can be an opportunity for ASD children in their growth. There are several applications that allow them to develop assisted social skills where expected behavior patterns are shown.
These applications must be recommended by specialists and supervised by adults. Each child is different and knowing the interests and tastes of each one will be key to understanding why they react in a certain way to different digital media.
Some children use their devices to relax for a while, for others, being connected is a time of multiple stimuli.
Let’s look at their positions. Are you relaxed, tense, focused, calm? How does he react when the device is taken from him when the time is up? In this way, you will know what is good for him and what is excessive for your child.
(1) Childwise Press Release, Available at: http://childwise.com.uk/uploads/3/1/6/5/31656353/childwise_press_release_-_monitor_2016.pdf
(2) Engelhardy, CR, Mazurek, MO and Sohl, K. (2013) <<Media use and sleep among boys with autism spectrum disorder. ADHD, or typical development>>. Pediatrics, 132 (6): 1081-9. doi:10.1542/peds.2013.2066
(3) Cross, E.-J., Richardson. B., Douglas. T. et al. (2009) <<Virtual violence: protecting children from cyberbullying>>. beatbullying. London.
<<Cyberbullying triples according to new McAfee”2014 Teens and the screen” study>>. Study developed by McAfee. Available at: http://www.mcafee.com/us/about/news/2014/q2/2014060301.aspx