Early screen time could lead to ASD-like symptoms

April 24, 2020

Despite clear guidelines opposing it, some children aged younger than 18 months get screen time with televisions, tablets, or cell phones. A new study indicates that these early exposures could increase the risk of autism spectrum disorder (ASD)-like symptoms later in life.

Even with screen time guidelines recommending against any screen time for children aged younger than 18 months, it’s not unusual to see a young child on a parent’s cell phone or tablet, nor is it unusual to see them sitting in front of a television screen. However, a new study in JAMA Pediatrics that indicates that early screen time can increase the risk of autism spectrum disorder (ASD)-like symptoms should give parents pause.1

Investigators used the National Children’s Study, a US multicenter study of environmental influences on child health and development, to find 2152 children who had been enrolled at birth. The child’s caregiver was asked if the child had viewed any television and/or videos at age 12 months; how many hours were viewed at age 18 months; the amount of time spent reading to the child, comparing number of days per week to amount of time spend each day, at age 12 months; and the frequency of play, whether daily or less than daily, at age 12 months.

The researchers found that children who had any television or video viewing at age 12 months had a 4.2% increased risk of showing ASD-like symptoms when they were aged 2 years. No association was seen with ASD risk. Children who had daily play with their parents at age 12 months saw their risk of ASD-like symptoms developing by age 2 years drop by 9%, and again there was no association seen with ASD risk. High screen viewing in children aged 18 months had no significant association with ASD-like symptoms or ASD risk developing at age 2 years.

The current coronavirus crisis has led many families to relax family rules on screen time and other media usage during stay-at-home restrictions and self-quarantine, but this study highlights how important maintaining the boundaries are for young children who are still undergoing critical brain development. An accompanying editorial underscored that one exception to no screen time is using video calling services to visit with family.2

References:

1.    Heffler KF, Sienko DM, Subedi K, McCann KA, Bennett DS. Association of early-life social and digital media experiences with development of autism spectrum disorder-like symptoms. JAMA Pediatr. April 20, 2020. Epub ahead of print. doi: 10.1001/jamapediatrics.2020.0230

2.    Christakis DA. Early media exposure and autism spectrum disorder: heat and light. JAMA Pediatr. April 20, 2020. Epub ahead of print. doi: 10.1001/jamapediatrics.2020.0659