Chetna Foundation (Autism Institute of Training and Research)
The Effect of Virtual Autism on Toddlers
July 27, 2022 / By Dr. Santosh Kumar

The Effect of Virtual Autism on Toddlers

Pediatricians around the world are astounded by the fact that babies and toddlers who spend hours in a day on tablets, phones and around televisions can develop autistic-like symptoms, in a newly identified condition called 'Virtual Autism'.

Studies have found that most of the young children, who spend too much screen time, have symptoms labeled as Autism. The term for this condition is Virtual Autism or Autism prompted by electronic screens. When parents take away the screens for a few months from the child, the symptoms disappear. The term Virtual Autism was formulated by Dr Marius Zamfir, a Romanian clinical psychologist.

Romania saw a startling rise in autism among young children in a children’s hospital. The cause was not known, so Dr Marius Zamfir looked into the activity logs of all admitted patients collected by the hospital. In those records he found a big trend of children presenting with autism, spending four or more hours in a day watching some type of screen. Currently in Romania, treatment of autism by withdrawing screens is now a therapeutic protocol.

Virtual Autism is often tough to assess, yet it is crucial to dig a little deeper into it. Knowing if a child’s autistic symptoms are due to Virtual Autism or autism spectrum disorder is important to their developing brains and to the mental wellbeing of the whole family. We are seeing an astonishing rise in autism diagnoses in India, a trend that has parents, teachers and health professionals baffled and concerned.

Today, children have more access to electronic media consistently than those of past generations. Few studies suggest that expanded screen time is related with melanopsin-communicating neurons and diminished gamma-aminobutyric acid neurotransmitter, and subsequently brings about unusual way of behaving, diminished mental and language development.

Screen viewing for several hours in a day stops the brain from developing and gives rise to behavioral and relationship problems. All screens pose grave dangers for children aged between zero and four. Over the last few years, doctors have noticed that more and more toddlers have unusual changes in behavior. Few have stopped responding to their names, avoid eye contact, have become indifferent to people around them and few others were developmentally behind their age.

Children gain proficiency to learn the meaning of words through friendly communication – by playing with real objects and having someone to look and talk to them. A mother expresses ‘put on your best clothes and we will go out to the park’ which is related with the activity of putting on clothes and going to the park, giving the words context and importance. Children learn about the world by controlling a toy with their hands, feeling it with their mouth and tossing it on the ground. Their brain registers these connections.

Children’s brain cannot develop without this feeling of touch and interaction. Light and noise from electronic screens catch their attention, but they do not foster a healthy brain development.

How to avoid Virtual Autism?

• Respecting a child’s fundamental developmental needs is paramount

• Children need to learn to talk, resonate, and develop vital social skills

• They need face-to-face interaction with caring people and need to utilize their senses as often as possible

• Parents need to stick with high-touch, high-talk interaction every day during their waking hours

• Babies and toddlers should not have solo use of screens

• Preschoolers should not have more than an hour of screen time a day

• Children need to engage in other activities that are vital to their health and development

• For the sake of their health and proper brain development, children aged less than one year should not be exposed to screens

Too much screen exposure isn’t always an outcome of bad or ignorant parenting. Furthermore, even if a child develops Virtual Autism as a result of parents being liberal with electronic screen media, it does not mean they don’t love their children, or that there’s nothing to help undo the damage.

The best way to turnaround Virtual Autism is to prevent it. If not prevented, Chetna Foundation can help children overcome its symptoms.

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