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  • Writer's pictureMatthew Guggemos

Screen Time and Early Development: Why One Viral Claim Doesn't Hold Up

Updated: Mar 28

In a recent Facebook video post that has garnered over 764K views, 9.4K likes, 1.6K shares, and 679 comments, a parent made the claim that unlimited screen time was beneficial for their autistic child's language development. The child, described as a "gestalt language processor," learned scripts from screen media that she used to communicate and assign roles during play. The parent concluded, "So the moral of the story is don't let anyone make you feel bad or guilty for allowing unlimited screen time to your autistic child, because this is what they may achieve."


While this individual case may seem compelling, the post's widespread popularity highlights how easily misinformation can spread on social media, even when it contradicts scientific evidence and logic. The parent's reasoning is flawed in several ways:


1. It assumes the conclusion (begging the question) that unlimited screen time is beneficial based on one child's experience.

2. It relies on anecdotal evidence to make sweeping generalizations about what's best for all autistic children.

3. It implies a false dichotomy between allowing unlimited screens or denying the child the ability to communicate.

4. It ignores other evidence-based therapeutic options for supporting language development in autistic children.


In reality, a growing body of research suggests that excessive screen time in early childhood is linked to developmental delays, particularly in communication and problem-solving skills.


One study by Heffler et al. (2024) in JAMA Pediatrics looked at over 7,000 children and found a dose-response relationship -- the more daily screen time 1-year-olds had, the higher their risk of delays in communication, fine motor skills, problem-solving and social skills at age 2, with some effects persisting to age 4. More than 4 hours per day was linked to the greatest delays [1].


Another 2023 study by Takahashi et al. of 7,097 children in Japan found similar trends. Compared to less than 1 hour per day, 4+ hours of daily screen time at age 1 was associated with a nearly 5-fold higher risk of communication delays and 2.7-fold higher risk of problem-solving delays at age 2. Some deficits continued at age 4 [2].

A preprint study by Deoni et al. (2021) also found infants born since mid-2020 scored an alarming 27-37 points lower on cognitive tests compared to those born pre-pandemic, with researchers hypothesizing increased screen time as a potential factor [3].


While screens may benefit some skills for some children, individual cases don't negate the broader statistical trends found in large studies. The reality is much more nuanced, and we must look holistically at the research and therapeutic options to find a balanced, individualized approach for each child.


As a society, we should be cautious about accepting anecdotal claims that contradict established science, especially when they have the potential to influence parenting practices on a large scale. Promoting "unplugged" play and interaction remains essential for healthy early brain development, and we must support parents in setting appropriate boundaries around screen use for very young children.



The spread of this post underscores the critical importance of media literacy and fact-checking in the digital age. We must all be vigilant in examining the logic and evidence behind popular claims before accepting or sharing them. The stakes are too high when it comes to the health and well-being of the next generation.


References:


[1] Heffler, K. F., Acharya, B., Subedi, K., & Bennett, D. S. (2024). Early-Life Digital Media Experiences and Development of Atypical Sensory Processing. JAMA Pediatrics, 178(3), 266-273. https://doi.org/10.1001/jamapediatrics.2023.5923


[2] Takahashi, I., Obara, T., Ishikuro, M., Murakami, K., Ueno, F., Noda, A., Onuma, T., Shinoda, G., Nishimura, T., Tsuchiya, K. J., & Kuriyama, S. (2023). Screen Time at Age 1 Year and Communication and Problem-Solving Developmental Delay at 2 and 4 Years. JAMA Pediatrics, 177(10), 1039-1046. https://doi.org/10.1001/jamapediatrics.2023.3057

[3] Deoni, S. C., Beauchemin, J., Volpe, A., Dâ Sa, V., & RESONANCE Consortium. (2021). The COVID-19 Pandemic and Early Child Cognitive Development: A Comparison of Development in Children Born During the Pandemic and Historical References. medRxiv. https://doi.org/10.1101/2021.08.10.21261846

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