The study of screens and their effects on children are on-going. A movie called Life, Animated, is coming out in 2016 telling the story of a boy named Owen who was diagnosed with Autism at the age of 3. His family discovered that using Disney movies helped him relate better to those around him, through the many characterizations. (Trailer found here: https://youtu.be/4n7fosK9UyY)
However, Jason Calder, LMFT, CMHC and Clinical Director of Unplugged at Outback Therapeutic Expeditions in Lehi, Utah has found evidence throughout his own research that warrants greater discussion outside of the Disney entertainment and cautions a potentially misguided message.
Calder says, “While digital media use in moderation can be helpful for some individuals, compulsive usage can have the opposite effect. I came across a study once which showed that too much screen time can induce “autism-like” traits. The study wasn’t necessarily saying that screen time was causing autism, just similar traits. From a synaptic pruning standpoint this makes sense. Neurological real estate is valuable; use-it-or-lose-it. Since we know that the vast majority of face to face communication is non-verbal then this is what we are losing when so much of our interaction becomes digitized. It could very well be that the cognitive processes that normally govern those interactions lie dormant if screen time is pervasive enough, and that those neurological centers get utilized for other functions (similar to the famous London cab driver study).
From my own qualitative research I’ve found some evidence for this. Roughly 40% of the clients in our Unplugged program have either been diagnosed on the Autism Spectrum or possess enough traits of ASD that they will likely warrant a diagnosis. But the fascinating thing for me has been to watch some of these folks develop more neurotypical traits as they detox from screens. As you may know, our program participants are in nature 24/7 and are 45 miles from the nearest electrical outlet. I’ve found that some of my clients initially present with heavy Autism Spectrum (Level 1) traits but that they start to decrease these traits over time; around 4-5 weeks they start giving me solid eye contact and begin reciprocating conversation. It’s been amazing to see!”
While we continue to study these trends, it can always be said that more quality time interacting with our children in positive ways yields good results.
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