Limiting screen time in infants may decrease risk of autism spectrum disorder, study finds

Male toddlers who watched more television at age one were more likely to be diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) at age 3, compared to those without any screen time, according to a recent multi-site Japanese study published in JAMA Pediatrics

“[A]mid the recent outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been a rapid change in lifestyles, with electronic devices being used as the main channels of communication and social interactions,” the authors wrote.  

Toddler boy sitting in bed holding the tv remote control and watching television. (Photo: iStock)

Toddler boy sitting in bed holding the tv remote control and watching television. (Photo: iStock)

“Amid this social climate, examining the associations of screen exposure with a child’s health is an important public health issue.” 

After the team screened approximately 100,00 pregnant women from a large Japanese birth cohort called the Japan Environment and Children’s Study between January 2011 to March 2014 across 15 regional centers, they found 84,030 mother-child pairs appropriate to analyze in December 2020, after excluding participants for missing data, stillbirths, miscarriages and children born with congenital conditions or cerebral palsy, per the study

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At age 3, 0.4% of the children, 76% who were boys, received an autism spectrum diagnosis, noting the proportion of autistic children increased with more screen time, finding boys were three times as likely of being diagnosed with ASD than girls, according to the study

Child deciding where is the best place to put his block. 

Child deciding where is the best place to put his block.  (Credit: iStock)

Although both boys and girls had similar screen time, the study only found an association between screen time and ASD among boys, but not with girls

“More and more parents are using ICT [information and communication technology] devices such as smartphone to raise their children,” said lead author Megumi Kushima, research associate, center for birth cohort studies, University of Yamanashi in Japan, and co-author Zentaro Yamagata, who is a professor and director of the center. 

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They told Fox News, “Of course, there are advantages, but some parents show their children videos for a long time because they are quiet.  This can lead to problems due to the lack of interaction between parents and children.  This study provides scientific evidence for sounding the alarm.” 

But statistics expert Kristin Sainani, associate teaching professor of epidemiology and population health at Stanford University in California, told Fox News: “Households where 1-year-olds are watching two or more hours of TV a day likely differ in important ways from households where babies watch less TV.” 

“The paper did not adequately characterize or account for these differences, and thus does not provide strong evidence of a causal link between infant screen time and autism.” 

Girl spending time with notebook computer.

Girl spending time with notebook computer. (iStock)

The study also noted additional limitations were not knowing the cumulative screen time because of a possible reporting bias, and also their study may be biased towards severe autistic disorder because mild cases are often not diagnosed by age 3.  

The authors, however, said their findings are relevant in the digital age, finding 90% of the children studied had been exposed to screen time at age one, despite the World Health Organization (WHO) recommending infants should not be exposed to screen time and the American Academy of Pediatrics warning no screen time until 18 months old, unless the child is video-chatting with an adult like a parent who is out-of-town

Kushima and Yamagata told Fox News their study suggests: “Limiting screen time to no more than one hour per day, at least until age one, reduces the environmental risk of ASD.” 

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“However, screen time is one of the environmental factors that influence the onset and extent of ASD. Other unknown environmental risks also need to be reduced. Research is needed to clarify these unknown factors.”   

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