Many children with special needs, particularly those on the autism spectrum, love screentime.
With this kind of response, it’s no wonder that parents often wonder if they should offer screentime as a behavioral incentive!
The question is, do the benefits outweigh the consequences?
The problems associated with screentime
We totally understand how easy it is to make screentime a habit, or part of the household routine.
In 2010, a Kaiser Family Foundation survey discovered that “the average 8- to 10-year-old spends nearly eight hours a day with a variety of different media, and older children and teenagers spend more than 11 hours per day.”
That number is probably higher today.
However, the increasing amount of screentime has also contributed to the following problems:
Sensory deprivation and decreased body awareness. While your child is engrossed with a screen, they’re ignoring their bodies’ cues such as hunger pangs or the need for bathroom breaks. Furthermore, screentime has been linked to sensory-motor delays and a worsening of sensory processing. That’s especially troublesome for children with autism (who frequently have sensory and motor integrationissues).
Less social interaction. Did you know that eye contact can stimulate your child’s brain development? Screentime can’t release oxytocin, one of the chemicals released through face-to-face interactions and human touch. It can only release dopamine. So make sure your child is getting all the social interaction they need for healthy growth!
Less sleep, which especially affects behavior. If your child is interacting with screens, they’re in a higher level of arousal than normal. This is especially important around bedtime, when the body needs to be relaxed and ready for sleep. If your child isn’t getting enough sleep, they will stress out their bodies, triggering the “fight or flight” response to almost any source of conflict...including you!
Other solutions and alternatives to screentime
With all these in mind, let’s explore some healthier alternatives to screentime, such as:
Hands-on activities in the kitchen, garage or even dad’s shop.
Quality time spent in a family project, board game or activity.
Turn on some music and dance.
At this point, you may be thinking, “I’ve tried all these alternatives, but my child still prefers screentime to any of these!”
It won’t always be easy pulling your child away from screentime, but we encourage you to treat this like a marathon, not a sprint.
Try a gentle approach instead of a drastic change all at once. Some options:
Still offering screentime as a reward, but in gradually decreasing amounts.
Increasing the number of requirements before your child can have screentime.
Limiting screentime to certain times of the day or week, and definitely no screentime an hour before bedtime.
Explaining the concept of delayed gratification and how screentime can negatively affect your child’s behavior (if your child is old enough).
Finally, as a parent, you should be a student of your child. Keep a journal, if that helps you understand them more. What makes them excited? Bored? Happy or sad?
If you see something that they enjoy (such as playing with Legos or some other activity), be sure to point that out to them. They can often learn more about themselves and their strengths through your observations.
The more alternatives you can find to screentime, the more outlets your child will have to express themselves in ways that benefit your whole family!