Dr Michael C. Nagel and Dr Rachael Sharman have co-authored Becoming Autistic. The book examines the neurological consequences of screen time on the developing brain and how they are increasingly being expressed as psychological and behavioural changes that resemble autism spectrum disorder (ASD)-like symptoms.
Handheld devices only became widely available in 2007, however researchers are beginning to see the impact of screen use on brain development with concerning consequences.
Dr Michael Nagel, Associate Professor Child/Adolescent Development and Learning at the University of the Sunshine Coast notes that identifying screens as the specific cause of a particular adverse event or effect is almost impossible.
“Morally, we can’t take children and do an experiment to see how much something harms them,” he says.
“Causation refers to how something may have directly impacted something else, while correlation is how some things might be related, which we see evidence of with high screen use and ASD-like symptoms.”
The human brain is not fully developed until after our 23rd birthday and is, literally, shaped by experiences.
When children are on screens, it’s time spent away from interacting in real time with real people, either other children or their adult carers.
They lose out on practising their communication and socialisation skills. Without these experiences, there is the potential for negative consequences.
“Our intent is to change parental behaviour and move away from using devices to essentially babysit children,” adds Dr Nagel.
“It’s important to recognise that the environment that children grow up in changes them for the rest of their lives.”
What’s happening now
Dr Nagel says that by the age of four, 95 per cent of Western children can competently use a mobile device. Most can before their second birthday.
Since 2015, different researchers have found that children who excessively use screens display ASD-like behaviour, also referred to as, Virtual Autism.
In 2020, Heffler and colleagues found that higher television and video exposure and less in-real-life play placed one-year-old children at greater risk of displaying ASD-like symptoms.
In 2021, researchers found the amount of time spent on a screen device had a significant association with deficits in social skill development and having ASD-like symptoms in four to six-year-olds.
“What we are seeing in children with excessive screen use is impaired language skills, an inability to express emotions facially, so a blank look on their face, and their attention towards human interaction wanes,” explains Dr Nagel.
He explains that these are some key indicators presented in children with ASD.
“If you displace real-life activities that build social learning and interpersonal skills with shallow yet entertaining screen-based dopamine hits, you are unlikely to develop the social sophistication required to navigate real life interactions,” he adds.
If we do nothing
There is no crystal ball to definitively know what our children’s future will look like, but Dr Nagel says that all the evidence points to our children growing up into adults who struggle to engage with other people.
“Over the last decade, we have seen an emerging generation of teenagers who are less tolerant of others, who are ‘crybullies’ (someone who engages in bullying while claiming to be the victim), who are very polarised (the belief of ‘it’s my way or no way’) and who have a diminished Theory of Mind, so unable to put themselves in other people’s shoes,” he explains.
“If you have years and years of onscreen use, with no counter-balance and there are structural changes to the brain, it could be that we are programming children to become teens and adults who are very polarised, who can’t put themselves into other people’s shoes and who struggle in social-emotional situations.
“There can be long-term negative social impacts, after all, at the end of the day to have a healthy society, people have to get along and they have to work with each other.”