Amid the pandemic induced lockdown across the globe when many children are at home all day sitting in front of a tablet or television due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak, researchers have found that too much of screen exposure can be linked to a higher likelihood of autism spectrum disorder (ASD)-like symptoms in babies.
The study, published in the journal JAMA Pediatrics, found that 12 months of babies who spend large portions of time looking at screens were more likely to show autism-like symptoms at two years of age.
"The findings strengthen our understanding of the importance of playtime between parents and children relative to screen time," said senior author David S Bennett from Drexel University in the US.
"There is a great opportunity for public health campaigns and paediatricians to educate and empower parents to possibly minimize their child's risk of ASD symptoms, which may include increasing social interaction and limiting screens at an early age," Bennett added.
For the results, during babies' 12- and 18-months well visits, their caregivers were asked about how often their baby is exposed to screens or books, and how often they play with their child. Following this group of 2,152 children from the National Children's Study the team examined how watching television or videos, as well as social playtime and reading together, were associated with ASD risk and ASD-like symptoms at two years of age as measured by the Modified Checklist for Autism in Toddlers (M-CHAT).
While toddlers generally are interested in interacting with others, those with ASD-like symptoms are less likely to show these social behaviours.
The findings showed that viewing screens at 12 months of age was associated with four per cent greater ASD-like symptoms, and daily playtime with a parent compared to less than daily playtime was associated with nine per cent less ASD-like symptoms.
The study backs recommendations from the American Academy of Pediatrics which discourages screen time in children younger than 18 months unless it is used for video chatting.
The authors noted that their study did not find an association with ASD risk, but rather with ASD-like symptoms. Future studies should explore whether this relationship is determined by children predisposed to ASD being drawn to the screens or screens contributing to ASD-like symptoms, they said.