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Virtual Autism: What You Need To Know

Society as we know it (or at least USED TO know it) has changed at rapid speeds over the last few decades. This is largely due to technological advances and how they have integrated into virtually every aspect of our lives.

Technology has played an integral role in shaping how we view and interact with the world around us. It has improved and simplified many aspects of our lives and has helped spearhead advancements in medicine, business, transportation, security, and a slew of other fields.

The downside is that, because technology has progressed so quickly, we haven’t been able to really study and analyze the potential hazards it can have on our emotional, physical, and mental health.

For example, there is a very real chance that years from now, researchers will find that staring at computer and phone screens all day leads to brain tumors. Of course, that’s a pretty extreme hyperbole, but the point remains – most tech devices are so new that it’s difficult to really observe their long-term effects.

However, there is ONE known detriment that more and more health professionals and psychologists are warning people about: the correlation between excessive exposure to “screens” and the spike in early childhood mental and behavioral disorders.

Until recently, pediatricians were recommending that parents limit their kids screen-time to a few hours a day, citing potential concerns with eyesight, speech impediments, hearing, memory retention, and other developmental markers for little kids. Now, experts that specialize in early childhood development are all but BEGGING parents to cut the crap with the phones, iPads, and television and it’s about time we all REALLY started listening.

A simple google search would cue hundreds of studies and articles on how determinantal screen time is on a young, developing mind but two recent studies revealed just how toxic it can actually be.

One study by the National Institute of Health used MRI scans to track the neurological activity of toddlers when they were playing on a tablet or watching television. What they found was truly haunting. The frontal cortex of the participants (the part of the brain that’s largely responsible for impulse and gratification) lit up like the Northern Light Sky when the child was using a device. The “lit” area indicated that the frontal cortex was FLOODED with dopamine – a neurotransmitter responsible for feelings of euphoria, happiness, and excitement. In small doses, the presence of dopamine is actually a great thing. However, in excessive doses it causes the brain to go “haywire.”

In fact, brain scans of children on technology LOOKED IDENTICAL to adults high on methamphetamine and cocaine. Even MORE disconcerting is that, when the device was taken away from the child, the kids responded much like a drug addict would if you were to eliminate their stimulant. Kids displayed a range of emotions from agitation to anger to anxiety to severe distress. The study went even further to suggest that spikes in ADHD and behavioral issues were very likely aggravated (if not directly correlated) with an excess to screen exposure.

The second noteworthy study came out of Romania where a child psychiatrist that worked in a hospital noticed a staggering increase in little kids displaying symptoms and behaviors associated with varying degrees of autism. Baffled by the sudden rise of ASD that had occurred within a six year period, the psychiatrist dug into the history, behavioral habits, eating habits, and parenting techniques of the families of those kids affected with Autism Spectrum Disorder.

The only common denominator, he found, was that all of his patients spent a noteworthy amount of time on phones, computers, and television. Convinced there was a correlation, the therapist requested families completely eliminated technological devices and instead encourage more activity, face-to-face communication, and reading and writing. What happened next was extraordinary (to say the least). Young children that had previously exhibited behaviors associated with Autism Spectrum Disorder showed virtually no signs of mental, auditorial, or behavioral complications only a few months after the trial.

His findings were SO significant that Romania now recognizes “Virtual Autism” as a medical condition and has significant public and medical support.

Here’s the thing – no matter how many of these publications surface, the overwhelming reaction of parents is to get defensive. As a parent myself, I totally get that. Toddlers are exhausting and it’s perfectly normal for you to want a nice, quiet dinner out or a road trip or airplane flight where your child isn’t fussy. Parents give their kids ipads because they can effectively distract them for long periods of time. I TOTALLY GET IT.

However, if someone were to suggest you give your 2-year-old a Xanax to calm them down or quiet them up, you would (hopefully) look at them like they were out of their damn minds. But technology really isn’t that much different from drugging your child when you consider the neurological effects screen-time has on their impressionable and developing minds.

Does that mean you have to completely forgo tv and games? Not necessarily. Just pick your battles better. Ipads and iPhones should be a LAST resort, not a FIRST resort. Is your toddler being fussy at a restaurant or bored while you’re running errands? Use that as a valuable learning opportunity to teach coping mechanisms to manage their emotions and use their environment to their advantage. It might be a pain at first, but I promise you the benefits will be soooooooo worth it.

Editorial Note: This article is in no way insinuating that eliminating technology will or could help or cure your child if they have been diagnosed with ASD. In more extreme cases, there usually are other factors involved. However, it may be worth your time to discuss this with your doctor or just try reducing screen-time when you can to see if they exhibit any changes.

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