Increased Screen Time in the Age of COVID-19 - Autism Awareness
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Navigating Screen Time for kids with autism

Increased Screen Time in the Age of COVID-19

During this period of isolation, staying at home, and school closures, the internet has been a way to stay connected to the world and have access to information and education. Screen time has its pros and cons. Technology is not good or bad, healthy or unhealthy. It is the way it is used that makes the difference in how we act, think and feel. What affects us is what we choose to view and engage with, how often we engage, and our intention which impacts how we function.

Most of us enjoy aspects of being online and this technology has many benefits; however, computers should not replace real life experiences, human connection and interaction with our environment. It’s important to have unplugged times during the day for exercise, fresh air, and relaxation.

How do you know if internet use is too much? Ask the following questions:

  1. Is the internet relied on to relieve negative moods?
  2. Is technology being used to numb feelings or avoid reality?
  3. Is the ability to sleep being impacted?
  4. Is the ability to concentrate or focus on other activities being affected?
  5. Is it hard to limit internet use?
  6. Is the internet increasing the feeling of isolation or disconnectedness?

A person with autism may not be able to express how they are feeling so an adult will have to watch and monitor internet use. I’ll give you an example of what is happening in our own household with my son, Marc and daughter, Julia. Her internet use has increased significantly due to the pandemic because she is at home most of the time.

Adorable little toddler girl with rainbow

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Julia’s Experience

Julia, age 21, has recently joined a story writing website as she likes to write. This site is for people who want to write specifically about Sonic the Hedgehog characters. For the most part, it has been a positive and motivating experience for Julia because she has found a creative outlet and a way to share her stories with other like minded people. Not only can you write your own stories, but you can engage in role plays. This is when you go back and forth with another writer and create a scenario together.

Some problems have arisen around communication. Julia does not always understand someone’s intent or meaning in what they write. Some writers take things too far and there has been some sexually explicit comments or people being abrupt and rude. Julia becomes very anxious and upset over these comments and can perseverate on them for days. It has become a teaching moment about communication via the internet. Without that face to face contact and body language, meaning and intent is more open to interpretation. People are also braver about what they say because they are  writing under an alias so they are anonymous.

I have used this activity to explain to Julia that people aren’t always who they say they are. They may be older, a different gender than they say, and very little, if anything, is being revealed about their true identity. We read the comments and private messages together, most of which are positive, and then Julia practices what she will say back to the person before she types in a response. This communication delay gives her time to think and experiment with appropriate responses. All messages from this site are sent to my e-mail so as soon as I see trouble starting, I intervene and talk with Julia about why a comment is inappropriate. We talk about when to end communication with someone or take a break. This week she learned about spamming as she posted a video clip on someone’s message board and she was told to stop spamming.

Julia also checks in several times a day with the cat charity she volunteers at since she has not been able to go there twice a week for the past 3 months. This visit keeps her informed of the new cats, who has been adopted and general news.

Julia’s computer is next to my work computer so I can monitor her moods and content use. She is not alone for long periods and we have breaks throughout the day for fitness, bike riding, reading together, and household chores like cooking and baking. While her internet use has increased during the pandemic, so have some of her skills such as typing, spelling, writing, and increasing her ability to put her thoughts into words.

Marc’s Experience

Marc, age 23, has started taking his group classes that used to meet in person online for the first time. He takes two music classes, a horticulture class, and has a 90 session once a week with his tutor from the local college. Marc has found the intensity of watching others and himself overstimulating. He tends to look away from the screen for most of the group classes. All of the participants talk at the same time because they gave difficulty knowing who is speaking. Marc does better with his tutoring session since it is with just one other person.

The group classes have been predictable in offering similar content and delivery each week. Marc thrives on predictability so this works well. The collage tutor sends the worksheets the day before the session so that I can tell Marc what will happen. She focuses on Marc’s interests and the weekly activities cover one theme. Examples of themes are horses, mountains (he loves to hike), musical instruments and different celebrities. Each session follows the same structure – a worksheet, a story to read with comprehension questions, then Marc reads aloud from the book he is reading on his own each week. He loves this session and is extremely motivated.

Marc listens to a lot of music on Youtube and watches old Oprah shows. The guests on Oprah are Marc’s springboard to new interests because he will ask me for the book Oprah is talking about or he wants to watch the movie that the celebrity guest is in. Marc tends to stick with themes – celebrity biographies, movies by one director (Woody Allen, for example), or a series like Road to Avonlea.  He has a lot of other activities that he likes to do such as reading, listening to music, yoga, meditation and coloring so he regulates himself easily around the internet.

What to Consider for Establishing Screen Time Rules and Routines

When setting rules and routines around screen time, take into account:

  • child’s age
  • what are they using screen time for
  • passive (watching something) or active (interacting with the media) consumption
  • is the content educational
  • explain the reason for the rule
  • have guidelines around content (no violence or profanity). We had age restrictions on certain content like TV shows aimed at adults when the kids were teenagers.
  • have set access and non-access times (not before bed, in bedrooms, while eating)

How To Regulate Internet/Screen Time

If you find that your child is spending too much time on screens, try these suggestions to reduce usage:

  • Put internet/screen time on the visual schedule.
  • Use a visual timer to show when time is up on a device.
  • Get outside without devices.
  • Develop a list of alternative activities to screen time (board games, reading, coloring, scrapbooking etc.).
  • Have the computer in an area where you can supervise.
  • Be a good role model yourself and limit your non work-related screen time.

Managing increased screen time has had its challenges during this time of isolation. Try to instill good habits around technology use because they can last a lifetime. It’s so easy to lose track of time and get caught up in something like Facebook. Assess screen time use, teach internet safety and use technology in ways that can be beneficial. I, for one, have been grateful to be able to connect with friends and family via Facetime and Zoom. Online learning has added to my knowledge base and expanded my interests. Think of good ways to harness the positives of technology. It’s all around us and here to stay.


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