Some children who have been diagnosed with autism or autistic spectrum disorder (ASD) could dramatically benefit from not being exposed to electronic screens.
New clinical case studies have found that many young children who spend too much screen time—on TV’s, video games, tablets and computers—have symptoms labeled as “autism.”1 When parents take away the screens for a few months the child’s symptoms disappear. The term for this phenomenon is “Virtual Autism” or autism induced by electronic screens. The term “Virtual Autism” was coined by Romanian clinical psychologist Dr Marius Zamfir.
Romania witnessed an astonishing rise in autism among youngsters in a children’s hospital. The cause was unknown, so one psychiatrist dug into the activity logs the hospital collected on all admitted patients. In those records he found a strong trend: children presenting with autism were spending four or more hours a day watching some kind of screen: television, computer, tablet, or phone. Today in Romania, treatment of autism by screen withdrawal is considered routine and has public support.
From books, arts and sports classes to iPads and television, many parents do everything in their power to entertain and educate their children. But what would happen if children were just left to be bored from time to time? How would it affect their development?
I began to think about boredom and children when I was researching the influence of television on children’s storytelling in the 1990s. Surprised at the lack of imagination in many of the hundreds of stories I read by ten to 12 year-old children in five different Norfolk schools, I wondered if this might partly be an effect of TV viewing. Findings of earlier research had revealed that television does indeed reduce children’s imaginative capacities.
For instance, a large scale study carried out in Canada in the 1980s as television was gradually being extended across the country, compared children in three communities – one which had four TV channels, one with one channel and one with none. The researchers studied these communities on two occasions, just before one of the towns obtained television for the first time, and again two years later. The children in the no-TV town scored significantly higher than the others on divergent thinking skills, a measure of imaginativeness. This was until they, too, got TV – when their skills dropped to the same level as that of the other children.