A controversial study claims the presence of a link between a young child's increased screen time and the probability of developing autism-like symptoms. The findings of the study reveal that one-year-old children who spend most of their time looking at screens were likely to show autism-like symptoms when they turned two. 

The study also concluded that daily play involving human contact was linked to nine percent less likelihood of developing autism-like symptoms, compared to less than regular play.

About 2,00 toddlers were screened with an autism test called the Modified Checklist for Autism in Toddlers, which asks parents 20 questions about the child's behavior. This approach to detecting ASD-like symptoms is controversial and is stuffed with diagnostic problems.  

Authors of the study offer their findings, especially at a critical time during the coronavirus pandemic, when children are at home all day due to lockdowns. With parents juggling their tasks between working from home, homeschooling their children, and doing household chores, experts say many would look to tablets and other gadgets to help them distract their children to allow the parents to finish their tasks.

Drexel University researchers in Philadelphia have also found that children receiving less interactive playtime are more likely to develop manifestations of autism spectrum disorder. 

Many scientists, however, doubt the credibility of the study, saying they found it difficult to put trust in the findings. Their study was published in JAMA Pediatrics and took data from other studies that asked parents various questions about their children's home practices and behavior. 

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Play Time is Still Important

Dr. Karen Heffler, the lead author of the study from Drexel University in Philadelphia, said that the literature is full of studies showing the benefits of parent-infant interaction on the child's development in the child's later years, as well as the association of increased screen time with developmental delays.

According to Dr. David Bennett, a senior author of the same study, the findings strengthen the understanding of the importance of playtime between parents and their children relative in comparison to screen time. Bennett adds that public health campaigns and pediatricians now have the opportunity to inform and educate parents about the risk of their child developing ASD with too much screen time at an early age.

In an article published in Pediatrics by Kenneth R. Ginsburg, he stated that play is essential to a child's development because it helps to build the child's cognitive, physical, social, and emotional well-being.

Criticisms of the Study

Many scientists, however, were not pleased with the results of the study. Dr. James Cusack, Director of Science at Autistica, criticized the study and its findings, saying that 'families deserved better science than that', particularly now when many young children are stuck at home and would tend to watch on their gadgets all day long.

He points out how the study was done on a small scale, and how the tool used to measure the effect of increased screen time on autism was not sufficient. Lastly, he argued that the measure used was children aged two, a time when children this age developed at different rates, which makes it very hard to diagnose autism. 

The authors themselves acknowledge that their study only found a connection with ASD-like symptoms, not ASD itself. They are calling for future studies to examine the relationship in more detail.

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