Many researchers have investigated how screen use affects in-person social communication as teens develop their social lives online. New research, published, by the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, shows that screen time may affect areas of the brain responsible for language development and literacy skills, which may explain difficulties with social communication. This research may be particularly useful in setting guidelines around screen use for teens on the spectrum, who already experience problems with effective communication.

The Effect of Screen Use on Brain Development

The Cincinnatti CHMC study used brain imaging and a survey that measured adherence to AAP screen-based media recommendations to determine the effect of screen time on the developing brain. The results of the cognitive tests correlated well with the children’s screen exposure; the children with higher screen exposure had poorer expressive language and did worse on tests of language processing speed, like rapidly naming objects. Higher survey scores were associated with lower levels of brain white matter integrity, which helps different areas of the brain communicate with each other, in tracts involving language executive function and other literacy skills. 

Risk Factors for Internet Addiction

Children on the Autism spectrum are uniquely vulnerable to various brain-related impacts of screen time, such as hyperarousal and dysregulation. Many teens with autism struggle with excessive screen time, as they may experience less social anxiety socializing online and may use personal devices as a coping mechanism when overwhelmed in social situations. As a result, they are more likely to exhibit symptoms of internet addiction with smaller amounts of screen time.

Some reasons teens with autism are vulnerable to the effects of screen time, include:

  • They tend to have low levels of melatonin that disrupts their sleep, which is suppressed by screen time
  • They become easily overstimulated
  • They are prone to anxiety
  • They struggle with concentration and information processing
  • They easily develop restricted interests, such as screen-based technology
  • They have trouble fitting into the “real world” and may prefer virtual worlds
  • Screen time hinders the development of communication skills, like reading facial expressions and body language and maintaining appropriate eye contact, that teens on the spectrum already struggle with

Screen Use Recommendations for Teens on the Spectrum

 

  • Encourage socially interactive screen time, like using social media to keep in touch with friends or message boards to contribute to conversations. Playing video games and watching television are less engaging and may lead to more social isolation and teens on the spectrum have the opportunity to withdraw into a virtual world.
  • Set time limits around screen use. Many teens on the spectrum respond well to sticking to daily schedules. Incorporating screen time during certain hours can help teens recognize when screen use is appropriate and when it might interfere with other activities they want to participate in. For example, setting designated screen time breaks rather than using screen time as an incentive for completing other activities can help teens stay motivated to follow a consistent routine.
  • Use screens in social settings. While personal devices sometimes disrupt natural conversations with others, they can also be a tool to facilitate topics of conversation. Watching movies together or showing someone how to play a game opens up discussions that help teens understand what they are seeing and how to apply them to their personal lives. 
  • Organize media-free activities or media-free locations at home. Setting boundaries around where screens are appropriate teaches teens how to unplug during certain activities. No phones in bedrooms or at the dinner table are a good rule of thumb to help them separate screen time from places where they may spend a lot of time. Media-free recreation activities provide opportunities for teens to practice social skills and get out of their comfort zone. 

 

Seven Stars Can Help

Discover Seven Stars RTC is a residential treatment center for teens ages 13-17 struggling with neurodevelopmental disorders, like Autism, that affect teens’ self-esteem and executive functioning. The program provides acute care stabilization, residential treatment, academic programs, adventure-based therapy, skill-building, and positive psychology. These various programs and therapies help students to improve their confidence, communication skills, and emotion regulation. Seven Stars provides students with individualized access to the resources they need to transition to the real-world practicing healthier habits and self-control. We can help your family today!

Contact us at 844-601-1167 for more information on screen time for teens on the spectrum.  We can help your family today.