Screen Time and Children Who Have Autism: Moderation is the Key

Technology is all around us, and our children typically use it as much as we do.  Often parents really want to purchase a tablet for their child, as they have either heard that this is very beneficial for children on the spectrum, or that a tablet can be used as a communication device for their child. If the device is being used as an educational tool with specialized apps, I often caution parents to limit 'screen time,' that is time spent engaged with cell phones, tablets, laptops, televisions or other devices.

Although these devices can have many benefits, it can be challenging to find a healthy balance between children's screen time and other activities. A Kaiser Foundation Report from 2010 suggested that elementary aged children in the U.S. used entertainment technology for 7 1/2 hours per day! This fact makes me wonder: how much screen time is too much?

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children spend no more than 2 hours per day on devices. The Canadian Pediatric Society recommends that children from the ages of 2 to 5 years have no more than an hour of screen time per day.  However, Dr. Jodi Gold in her book Screen Smart Parenting (2015)  suggests that we focus more on the content and how the technology is used than the amount of use. Although there isn't a lot of research on the impact of technology on children with autism, we do see early indications that electronics can have benefits and dangers. Many devices and programs are powerful learning tools. It is also clear, though, that human interaction is the best way to support learning, and technology should not replace social interaction. We also know that technology use reduces physical activity and affects sleep (that is, night time technology use can be overstimulating and make it harder for children to fall asleep).  There are also safety concerns related to identity theft, cyber-bullying and exposure to inappropriate content.

A limit of two hours per day of 'screen time' and parental supervision and awareness of children's technology use seems like a reasonable limit, especially for children under the age of 6.