Babies glued to screens 'could develop autism-like symptoms'

Babies glued to tablets or television during the coronavirus lockdown ‘could develop autism-like symptoms’, controversial study warns

  • Researchers reanalysed old data to find a link between screen-time and autism   
  • Found lots of screen exposure was lined to higher livelihood of autism symptoms
  • Many scientists scrutinising the research have condemned the study and its methods, calling it absurd, empty of details and a failure of peer-review 
  • Learn more about how to help people impacted by COVID

A controversial scientific study claims there is a link between how much a young child watches television and the likelihood of developing autism-like symptoms.  

It found that one-year-old children who spend large portions of time looking at screens were more likely to show autism-like symptoms at two years of age. 

Researchers from Drexel University in Philadelphia also found children that have less interactive playtime with caregivers are more likely to develop symptoms of Autism spectrum disorder (ASD). 

However, other scientists reviewing the study are torn on the validity of the research and whether or not its findings can be trusted.

Experts not involved with the study have slammed its methods and called its integrity into question.  

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A controversial scientific study claims that one-year-old children who spend large portions of time looking at screens were more likely to show autism-like symptoms at two years of age (stock photo)


According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, people with autism have trouble with social, emotional and communication skills that usually develop before the age of three and last throughout a person’s life. 

Specific signs of autism include: 

  • Reactions to smell, taste, look, feel or sound are unusual
  • Difficulty adapting to changes in routine
  • Unable to repeat or echo what is said to them
  • Difficulty expressing desires using words or motions
  • Unable to discuss their own feelings or other people’s
  • Difficulty with acts of affection like hugging
  • Prefer to be alone and avoid eye contact
  • Difficulty relating to other people
  • Unable to point at objects or look at objects when others point to them

Results showed time spent viewing screens aged 12 months was associated with four per cent greater ASD-like symptoms.

And daily play time with a parent was linked to nine per cent less ASD-like symptoms, compared to less than daily play.

The authors suggest these findings come at a critical time during the coronavirus pandemic when many children are at home all day.

Parents are juggling working from home with schooling so look to screens for help and distraction, they say.

Lead author Dr Karen Heffler from Drexel University in Philadelphia said: ‘The literature is rich with studies showing the benefits of parent-infant interaction on later child development, as well as the association of greater screen viewing with developmental delays.

‘Our study expands on this previous research by associating early social and screen media experiences with later ASD-like symptoms.’

Senior author Dr David Bennett, also from Drexel University, said: ‘These findings strengthen our understanding of the importance of play time between parents and children relative to screen time.

‘There is a great opportunity for public health campaigns and pediatricians to educate and empower parents to possibly minimise their child’s risk of ASD symptoms, which may include increasing social interaction and limiting screens at an early age.’

The research has today been published in JAMA Pediatrics and took data from previous experiments that asked parents various questions. 

More than 2,000 children participated in the original investigation back in 2009.  

Parents and guardians were asked how often their baby is exposed to screens or books at their 12- and 18-month health check-ups. 

They were also asked how often they play with their child.

Researchers examined how television or videos, as well as play time and reading together, were linked to autism spectrum disorder (ASD) symptoms at age two.

Toddlers were screened with an autism test called the Modified Checklist for Autism in Toddlers (M-CHAT) which asks 20 questions about the child’s behaviour.

This method for detection ASD-like symptoms is itself controversial and fraught with diagnostic problems.     

Dr James Cusack, Director of Science at Autistica, a charity dedicated to autism research, condemned the study and its findings.

He said: ‘It is absurd to claim, based on these results, that screen time has any association with autism or how autistic someone is. 

‘Families deserve better science than this – particularly right now.

Researchers from Drexel University in Philadelphia also found children that have less interactive playtime with caregivers are more likely to develop symptoms of Autism spectrum disorder (ASD)

‘First of all the effect of screen time observed in the study is small. Secondly, the tool used to observe the effect is not particularly effective at detecting autism. 

‘Thirdly, the measure is used at two years old, an age where children develop at different rates and where we know it is hard to accurately diagnose autism.’

His denunciation of the study was echoed by Professor Andrew Przybylski, Associate Professor and Director of Research at the Oxford Internet Institute.

In a scathing statement, he compares the research to jazz, in as much as it is the absent details which matter most. 

He adds: ‘In this paper there are two key details missing.

‘First, there was no registration of the authors’ analysis plan before the data was collected or analysed. 

‘The richness of datasets like these make them ideal candidates for ‘cherry-picked’ results if not all of the relevant data are analysed. A second screen time question was asked: “How often does child watch TV and/or DVDs?” but this was not analysed. 

‘The authors did not report that that this was asked as a follow-up question to parents when their children were 12 months old. Its absence is worrying and I don’t know why the authors have not reported on that.

‘Second, there was no mechanism proposed or tested in the data linking screens to autism. 

‘If a scientist is going to make a bold sweeping claim that answering yes to the question “Does your child watch TV/DVDs?” at 12 months is associated with greater Autism-like symptoms 6 months later it should incumbent upon them to do the research required to explore before publishing. This was not done.

‘It’s difficult to understand how the publication of this paper is not an example a failed peer review process.’ 

The authors themselves note their study found only an association with ASD-like symptoms, but not ASD itself.

They are calling for future studies to investigate the relationship in more detail to find out more about the relationship.     

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