Podcast #6: Virtual Autism: Myth or Reality? Navigating Screen Time and Child Development

In today’s digital age, the impact of screen time on child development has become a pressing concern for many parents and professionals. One term that has gained attention in recent years is “Virtual Autism” – a concept suggesting that excessive screen exposure can lead to autism-like symptoms in children. But what does the research say about this phenomenon? In this podcast, we explore the complex relationship between screen time and child development, separating myths from realities and offering practical strategies for fostering healthy growth and well-being in our children.

Table of Contents

Introduction

Madhavi: Welcome to our podcast, where we explore the world of child development and the unique challenges and joys it brings to families of children with special needs. I’m Madhavi Adimulam, mom to a 25-year-old young man, Varun, diagnosed with autism, and I’m joined by Isha Singh, a seasoned child psychologist with over 15 years of experience.

Together, we dive into insights and guidance for families like ours, aiming to empower and support through understanding and insights. No matter where you are in your journey, we are here to walk with you, sharing experiences, knowledge, and compassion in every episode.

In this episode, we dive into the following topics:

1. Defining virtual autism and its signs and symptoms

Madhavi: Of late, we’re getting a lot of parents who are asking us about virtual autism. They come to Ananya for consultation with an assumption that their child has virtual autism. Their child has been spending a lot of time in front of a screen and is showing some symptoms of autism. They expect us to give a diagnosis of virtual autism.

So, Isha, what is virtual autism?

Isha: Virtual autism, a term that a lot of parents and professionals are coming up with, basically refers to symptoms in a child that resemble autism spectrum disorder. It can include: 

1.1 Impaired social skills

Due to excessive screen time, the child doesn’t have enough opportunities to develop social skills and interact with others.

1.2 Speech delay, language, and communication issues:

The child doesn’t learn how to speak, ask for things, express feelings, or convey messages using language because of constant screen exposure.

1.3 Immensely reduced physical activity:

A child below six years especially should be moving around, exploring their environment. It’s okay if it gets a bit messy – playing and exploring are essential. However, screen time drastically reduces a child’s physical activity.

1.4 Sleep problems

A child below six years especially should be moving around, exploring their environment. It’s okay if it gets a bit messy – playing and exploring are essential. However, screen time drastically reduces a child’s physical activity.

Screens before bed disrupt sleep. Ideally, there should be no screen time (TV, mobile, iPad, etc.) for at least three hours before bedtime. Instead, try reading to the child and developing a calming bedtime routine. Let’s talk more about what parents can do, but remember, it’s possible to establish a healthy sleep routine without any screens involved.

2. Exploring the relationship between excessive screen time and virtual autism

Isha: A question that parents constantly ask is, what’s considered excessive screen time for a child? Theoretically, the ideal answer is no screen time at all. But Madhavi, you understand technology better. It’s part of our lives now, so what do you think about how much screen time is appropriate for children?

Madhavi: Parents tell me they start screen time as early as three months old! These days, baby equipment like cribs even come with iPad attachments, so infants can watch screens before they can even hold their heads up. It means the child isn’t interacting with anyone and can be completely absorbed by the screen. On average, some children experience 8 to 10 hours of screen time a day from a very young age.

2.1 The Cocomelon Phenomenon

Parents often mention Cocomelon, a popular YouTube channel. They think it’s educational and soothing, so they let their children watch for hours on end. This is a major problem.

2.2 Screen Time as a Tool for Busy Parents

Some parents tell me they don’t have help at home. Their partners work long hours, and they need to get housework done. They’ll strap their child into a pram with an iPad for hours at a time. Another common use is during mealtimes – children need a screen in front of them just to eat.

2.3 The Grandparent Factor

Many parents in South India leave their children with grandparents. These grandparents are older and may have a nanny to help. Unfortunately, sometimes nannies choose the easy way out and put a screen in front of the child all day – it makes the child easier to manage.

2.4 Decades of Research, Yet the Problem Persists

Studies have shown the dangers of screen time for over two decades. Even when my son (now 25) was a toddler, I was told screen time was bad. We adults can’t imagine our lives without screens, but it’s actively harming our children. They should be learning from us, interpreting body language, and experiencing the world firsthand.

2.5 The Goal: Zero Screen Time

I track my own screen time because I want to reduce it. If I were asked how much screen time is good for a child, I would say zero.

3. Practical strategies for reducing screen time and supporting healthy child development

Madhavi: Many parents ask how to reduce screen time. Isha, what common advice do you offer?

Isha: Here are some strategies parents can use:

Establish a daily routine: Helps the child understand expectations.

Set clear boundaries and rules: Children need to learn what’s allowed and what’s not.

Create screen-free zones: Designate specific areas without screens.

Prioritize family mealtimes: Avoid screens during meals to focus on the food and each other.

Engage in active playtime: Get children moving!

Develop a sleep routine: Essential for child development.

Madhavi: Let’s discuss routines further. Many parents misunderstand the concept. Parents often equate routine with simply doing the same things daily. I had a family where the child’s daycare schedule functioned as their routine. The child rarely ate well, slept at odd hours, and was very active at night. This is a routine, but not a healthy one. Instead, I’m referring to a circadian rhythm:

Waking up around 7 am.

Breakfast by 8 am.

Lunch, nap, snack, playtime.

Structured evening with dinner, bath, and bed by 8 pm.

Isha: Boundaries and rules are crucial. Children don’t inherently understand limits; we must teach them. Parents often think they must keep children happy at all times, but that’s not our job. Our job is to fulfill their needs, not every want. Differentiating these two things is key. Ideally, the whole house is screen-free, or at least one room where the child doesn’t have access. Adults can still watch movies, but it isn’t necessary for young children to join in.
Madhavi: Mealtimes are essential…

3.1 The Importance of Family Meals

From the age of about 8 months, children can join the family at the table. My own eating habits were shaped by watching my family eat. Children shouldn’t eat alone in front of screens – they miss the full sensory experience of food. Parents blending food for older children (3-5 years old) and sending it to school is increasingly common, but it’s a problem.

3.2 Quality Time & Physical Activity

Quality time means being present during the day, not 2-4 am. Physical activity is equally important as mealtimes: the park, water play, sand play, playing with other children, etc.

3.3 Sleep Routines & Sleep Hygiene

Homes get active in the evening: TV on, cooking happening, lots of noise. Dimming lights, reducing blue light, and making the living room less exciting (“sleep hygiene”) is key. Even slightly older children (2 years) can help with small chores to wind down.

3.4 Sleep Routines & Sleep Hygiene

Many young mothers live in nuclear families and feel isolated. Don’t be afraid to ask for help from in-laws or your mother. It’s absolutely possible to raise children without screen time.

Help Your Child Thrive

4. Differentiating between virtual autism and autism spectrum disorder from a clinical perspective

Madhavi: Children with virtual autism exhibit autism-like symptoms. As a clinical psychologist, how do you distinguish between virtual autism and classic autism?

Isha: While the term “virtual autism” is used by some parents, there’s no such formal diagnosis. If the symptoms align with autism, the official diagnosis is autism spectrum disorder (ASD). The focus then shifts to early intervention, regardless of the potential cause.

Madhavi: So, for diagnostic purposes, it’s always ASD. However, if it’s virtual autism, reducing screen time and starting early intervention can lead to a drastic reduction in symptoms. With reassessment, a child might no longer meet the diagnostic criteria. This differs from classic autism, where changes may be slower or less complete, but children can still thrive with support.

Isha: Exactly. Environmental factors, including excessive screen time, can trigger signs and symptoms. Early intervention, such as speech therapy, occupational therapy, and others, is crucial in both cases for skill development. If the cause is primarily environmental (like in virtual autism), the severity of the symptoms could reduce significantly over time.

Madhavi: So, the path for parents is the same regardless of the type:

Immediately reduce screen time

Start early intervention with various therapies

Actively support the child (not just wait and watch)

Isha: Absolutely!

5. Challenges faced by children and families dealing with virtual autism

Madhavi: We’ve discussed the signs of virtual autism, but what specific challenges do children and families face in their daily lives?

Isha: Here are some key challenges:

5.1 Social Interaction & Communication:

Excessive screen time isolates children, hindering the development of social skills and the ability to express themselves effectively.

5.2 Speech & Language Delays

Lack of verbal interaction leads to delays in speech and language development.

5.3 Reduced Physical Activity

Limited exploration and physical activity can negatively impact a child’s overall development.

5.4 Sleep Disturbances

Screens disrupt sleep patterns, affecting mood, behavior, and cognitive functions.

5.5 Setting Boundaries

It’s harder for families to establish clear rules around screen time when it’s so ingrained in daily life.

5.6 Lack of Awareness

Many parents and caregivers don’t understand virtual autism, which delays identification of the issue and getting the right support.

Madhavi: These are significant hurdles that can be very stressful for families. It’s essential for parents to understand these challenges and seek professional help to manage them

6. The importance of early intervention and supporting children showing symptoms of virtual autism

Madhavi: Isha, we know families facing virtual autism need support. Why is early intervention so important?

Isha: Early intervention is key for children showing signs of virtual autism or autism spectrum disorder. Here’s why:

Madhavi: Isha, we know families facing virtual autism need support. Why is early intervention so important?

Isha: Early intervention is key for children showing signs of virtual autism or autism spectrum disorder. Here’s why:

6.1 Timely Help

Early diagnosis means children get the right support sooner, making a major difference in their development.

6.2 Targeted Therapies

Speech therapy, occupational therapy, and others can address a child’s specific challenges and help them build crucial skills.

6.3 Beyond Therapy

Reducing screen time, creating healthy routines, and encouraging physical activity and social interaction are also essential.

6.4 Empowering Parents

Understanding virtual autism allows families to make the best decisions and create a supportive environment.

6.5 Expert Guidance

Mental health professionals, pediatricians, and child specialists offer personalized strategies and support for families.

Madhavi: Excellent points! A comprehensive approach focused on early action, expert guidance, and family support gives children the best chance to overcome the challenges of virtual autism. Parents, don’t hesitate to seek help!

Conclusion

Madhavi: Isha, let’s summarize the most important points for our listeners.

Isha: Here’s what everyone needs to remember:

Virtual Autism is Not a Diagnosis

While it’s a helpful term, if symptoms are significant, the official diagnosis is autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

Screen Time Risks

Excessive screen time can lead to autism-like symptoms in children. Parents must set healthy boundaries.

Seek Guidance

If you’re concerned about your child’s development, consult a professional. Early intervention is key for both virtual autism and ASD.

Each Child is Unique

Celebrate your child’s progress, support them with playful activities, and don’t hesitate to reach out for professional help.

Madhavi: Excellent advice! By understanding these points and taking action, parents can make a real difference in their child’s development.

Madhavi: If you suspect signs of virtual autism or autism spectrum disorder, don’t hesitate. Contact your pediatrician, a child development specialist, or a mental health expert for assessment and guidance. Early intervention is crucial.

Isha: Find more resources at www.asap.org.in or get in touch by calling +91 98485 13192.

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