Balancing Screen Time for Children with Autism: How Much is Too Much?
November 09, 2020
November 09, 2020
Tablets, smart phones, smart watches, TVs and computers – screens follow us everywhere. It’s easy to become consumed by them, especially throughout the last several months, as many other activities have been limited due to COVID-19. Fortunately but unfortunately, screen time has gotten many parents through these tough times, often relying on it as they work from home without other forms of child care.
However, some parents are concerned by this increase in screen time, as research shows that children who spent more time watching screens at ages 2 and 3 years old did not perform as well during developmental milestone screening once they were 3 and 5 years old.
But, how much is too much? And how should parents work with their children to cut back on screen time when saying “no” to it becomes a struggle?
To help caregivers work through the screen-time challenge, we spoke to Hopebridge Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) Chalonda Williams from the autism therapy center in Suwanee, Georgia. Chalonda shared advice on how to navigate screen time habits in an effective manner that benefits children and parents.
When it comes to the autism population, a display of new or increased maladaptive behaviors is one of the biggest signs of “too much” screen time. While it may appear differently for each child, some warning signs include crying and tantrums that may include throwing oneself to the floor when not given access to a screen.
Children may become obsessive over it; choosing not to engage in any other activities or play with any other toys besides interacting with a screen. They may “have to have it now” and constantly ask for it. Others may feel the need to touch a phone or tablet every few sections so it doesn’t “go dark,” or have a desire to view someone else’s phone. Some may elope to an area where they last saw the device, which can lead to safety hazards.
When these instances occur with children in our centers, they are typically related to a tablet or handheld device, though television or computer usage can still pose similar challenges.
The best way to regulate screen time is to take a proactive stance, though we understand that is not always an option. At Hopebridge, we knew the pandemic could lead to a bigger battle for screen time, so we took the lead to engage our children in a more active manner. We played games of tag and participated in various circle time activities to provide fun alternatives to the tablet.
Here are five tips, tools and tactics parents can utilize to help make the process smoother:
Participating in applied behavior analysis (ABA therapy) is an effective way to combat the screen-time challenge, much like it is for other restrictive interests and maladaptive behaviors.
When used as part of autism therapy, our teams are able to build upon kids’ interests, which can in turn affect their screen time usage. For instance, if a child is really interested in letters, we can sing an alphabet song or create letters with Play-Doh instead of using apps on a tablet to appeal to this interest.
By building upon their interests, ABA therapy can be used to increase the number of potential reinforcers. Many children come to us with the tablet as a primary source of reinforcement and we will conduct preference assessments to find other items and activities that may also interest them. One way to try this at home is to set out a bunch of toys in one area while the tablet is off to the side and out of reach. See what your child gravitates toward. Keep track in your head to see what they play with the longest. Add new items or toys they haven’t played with in a while to see if it sparks something fresh. If blocks pique their interest, give them more time to play with them today. Next time, give them the choice of blocks or the tablet and see where it goes.
ABA therapy also helps children build tolerance. We’ll pair the tablet with other items and slowly move it off to the side while it’s still playing in the background. By doing this, they’re still accessing it, but we are keeping their hands busy at the same time to get more of that quality time and functional play. Over time, we can decrease tablet usage in this same manner.
Though it’s not always easy, it is possible to overcome troubles with screen time. In one of our Atlanta centers, our therapy team had to place the use of tablets on extinction for one child. This kiddo would obsess over it to the point that we could not get in any productive programming or progress on skills. If we didn’t provide the tablet immediately, they would engage in aggressive behavior and elope. This child would also attempt to take anything within sight that resembled a phone or tablet.
Part of our role in therapy was to find a replacement for the tablet. Since this child liked to be active, we went on more walks outside. We incorporated the center’s gym and trampoline more often. To open their mind to other activities, we conducted more preference assessments to learn what else captured their interest.
Initially, the number of maladaptive behaviors for this child increased, and we experienced some spontaneous recovery, but ultimately progressed, which shows why it’s important to stick with it. Once we built tolerance for other activities and found the right reinforcers, we could eventually fade screen time back into the mix within shorter bursts of time … and now this kiddo is able to enjoy more opportunities life has to offer!
We want to emphasize that some screen time is acceptable and does not have to be cut out completely, but it should not be limitless nor take away from other more important activities and skills.
Break up screen time throughout the day in smaller chunks, rather than for hours or one long period of time. This will give kids’ minds and eyes a break and will keep them from becoming overly satiated with it. If this is not an option due to virtual learning or your own deadlines, create boundaries with set specific time frames each day for device usage. Outside of this time, focus on other activities that do not involve a screen.
My biggest advice is to engage with your child as much as possible, even during screen time. Participate with them by encouraging them to sing along or count objects. This can be difficult for parents who are working from home or need to get chores done around the house, but try to carve out some time for interaction. You want to become the “fun thing” for them, versus solely the tablet. The device should never be more fun than you, so pair yourself with it.
Eventually, you can phase screen time out of the activity all together. Try changing from the tablet to the TV first, then move the activity outside while listening to the device’s sounds and music, then remove the device and sing the song together.
Need more assistance on this goal and others? Chalonda and the rest of our therapy team at Hopebridge has experience in this area and beyond to help your kiddo get the most out of what life has to offer. If your family is struggling with screen time and your child experiences other behaviors that may need support, fill out the form on our website to find out more about our diagnostic evaluations, ABA therapy and other complementary service options.
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