by Nanny Aut
Screen time gets a bad press in the media. When I was a new parent I was warned against the dangers of TV and computers for children.
‘Stunts their imagination.’
‘Stops them from being active learners.’
‘They will become addicted and never leave their room.’
‘Turns them into mindless zombies.’
‘Destroys their eyesight.’
‘Prevents them from developing social connections.’
Etc. Etc. Etc.
I started out with the best of intentions – with all the zeal of a convert/ terrified new parent – determined to do the best for her child. After all, I grew up without screens – home computers weren’t around until my teens, mobiles were still giant bricks until my late twenties and the one TV in the house was reserved for parental viewing. We could watch what they were watching and the only adult shows of interest to me were the classic musicals on Sunday afternoon, Tomorrow’s World and Doctor Who (which I watched from behind the sofa so I could avoid the scary bits). The only exception was Saturday mornings when we could watch our own programmes, where I would binge on cartoons for three hours straight despite a LOT of parental disapproval and comments about SQUARE eyes. (I did hear them and would even check in the mirror after I finished my cartoon marathons, but since my eyes stayed clearly eye-shaped, I decided it probably wasn’t a serious risk). And at boarding school there was the regular Thursday treat of Top of the Pops. The highlight of the week.
I ignored the fact that, despite all this wonderful screen-free time, I still interacted with as few people as possible, immersing myself in books instead of screens, hating imaginative play as it was confusing and random, and saw outdoors mainly as a threatening and basically dirty place, with an uncertain climate, that had very little positive to offer. And I ignored the fact that learning from reading is just as imperfect as learning from screens – getting your sex ed from Mills and Boon, Jilly Cooper, LACE and Cosmo is not advisable. It leads to some VERY strange concepts of adult relationships.
The practical realities of parenting forced me to rethink this ‘no-screen’ stance. My ‘my house is a screen-free zone’ lasted until she was six months old. Basically, when her constant need for interaction was pushing me over the edge. I couldn’t cope, so I started leaning on the TV as my stand-in nanny at times. And I felt like a terrible parent, a lazy parent, one who was putting her needs above her child’s. And it wasn’t true.
Hindsight has shown me that my daughter gained as much out her screen time as I did. Direct benefits included regulation and education. Indirect benefits included space to be herself without a parent constantly hovering – yes, I started out a helicopter mum, determined to control everything about my daughter’s upbringing – and a calmer Mum because I wasn’t overloaded.
Screentime was always unlimited for her. I had learned from my own upbringing, where many things were restricted, that the more restricted something is, the more desirable it becomes because you don’t know when you will access it again. As an adult, removing these restrictions for myself completely changed my attitudes – if I can access it all the time then I don’t need to chase after it or binge it if I get hold of it. It is there as a take or leave option.
This didn’t mean it was unsupervised. I always kept an eye on content and if I felt she was getting the wrong message about something, we would discuss it. And if I felt the content wasn’t suitable I would ban it, taking care to explain exactly why it wasn’t ok. As she got into gaming later on, she even taught me some of her games and we bonded over it. Not ones that required co-ordination, she’s highly co-ordinated and I’m dyspraxic, so that mismatch caused a LOT of frustration. And it wasn’t non-stop – my daughter had other interests outside of screens, such as outdoor play – particularly building dens, gymnastics and later on ice-skating. All her choice, all self-driven. She asked and I was just the facilitator.
This is a long pre-amble (me, taking the long route round? Never!) to explaining that screen time very much isn’t the devil that the media makes it out to be. It can carry many benefits including entertainment, education, expanding our world and our understanding, developing motor skills, and for autistics, it can also be a vital regulation tool.
That said, it is very much not as clear-cut as screen-time being good or bad.
Screen-time can be a very useful tool, it can be abused, it can even be dangerous. Particularly with the wide variety of content that is now out there and freely available. I am very much NOT advising that parents give their children unsupervised access. And how we engage with screen-time and what we engage with can create as many problems as it solves.
If we take the analogy of food – food in the general is essential to our well-being – we die without it. But food is too broad a category, just as screen-time is too broad a category. It is important to recognise the types of food we are eating, the nutritional needs that food meets, when and how often we eat and why cravings for particular foods occur.
Screen-time comes in a wide variety of types and yet the media tends to lump it all together.
- TV and YouTube/TikTok: This is the most varied type, it can be educational, providing access to knowledge on a wide variety of topics. It can provide familiar material for repetitive viewing to allow the brain to rest and reset. It can be a visual stim helping to create dopamine.
- It can also provide toxic and harmful messaging to children who don’t yet have the experience or knowledge to recognise and avoid it. This is why you need to know what they are watching and what the knowledge takeaways they’re getting from it. And to have frank discussions with them. Teach them to become critical thinkers and how to spot the toxic for themselves. The internet isn’t going away – better to teach them to tame the tiger, rather than pretending it is a pussy cat.
- Gaming: The benefits were covered very well by Andy Smith from Spectrum Gaming in the last Inside Aut. But what a lot of parents don’t realise is that there is a massive variety of games and different types of games bring different benefits. After all, you wouldn’t play chess to get physically fit and you wouldn’t play a game of pure chance to learn strategy. Playing Candy Crush or solitaire is a visual stim for me, as well as providing a dopamine hit on each win. It is familiar and routine and requires little processing. World creation games like Animal Crossing or Minecraft can provide enormous opportunity for creativity and can give and enormous sense of control, controlling the game world when the outside world is chaotic. Many ‘battle’ games look violent to the outside observer, and can provide a cathartic outlet for anger and frustration, but these games also teach strategy and patience as well as teamwork, if it is a multi-player game.
- It’s important to be aware of what your child is playing, and who they’re playing with, ask to be allowed to observe, talk to them about it afterwards – don’t ask questions while they are playing – try to experience their world. Even ask them to teach you how to play if they are ok with that, but don’t get offended if they say no. This is their world you are asking for an invite into, they should have the autonomy to decide who joins them in that world.
- Social Media: Games can be a great place to socialise because it is a structured world with structured social rules. However, sometimes that can turn nasty and also it is an opportunity for predators to engage with the vulnerable and unwary. The same is true for social media. For many of us it’s where we find our ‘kin’, people who think like us and experience the world the same way that we do. We can connect and belong in a way we may not be able manage in real life. But trolls and predators are out there too, and we can be very vulnerable to attack. It is really important to teach about the dangers that are out there and how to avoid them or protect yourself. Encourage open and honest dialogue, so they feel safe coming to you with issues. Restricting access and believing that will solve the issue is like preaching abstinence and not providing sex education. They will eventually get access and when they do they will be vulnerable – uneducated and unaware of the pitfalls.
- It is also really important to teach critical thinking when it comes to social media – how to fact check, how to recognise that popular beliefs aren’t always correct, how to properly evaluate trends and fashions.
This is why it is important not to look at screen-time as a monolith, but rather in terms of benefits and downsides based on the specific activity. And to recognise that, while children may need a guide to identify the pitfalls your experience is aware of and they aren’t, you need to keep a dialogue going and find out what they are gaining from that activity. They may pleasantly surprise you.
The key benefits that we gain from screens:
- Learning – developing our knowledge through research, watching YouTube, reading blogs and gaming allows us to deep dive our interests at our own pace and in our own way. It suits our learning style exceptionally well. However, as children we’re likely to still need a guide because we haven’t yet developed the critical thinking skills we need to discern good facts from bad facts. (TBH there are a lot of adults out there who still need to develop critical thinking because it’s exceptionally badly taught in schools.)
- Social skills such as collaboration, communication, co-operation, self-advocacy and tolerance are often developed on social media and multi-player games. It also exposes us to a much wider pool of people so we are more likely to find people like us and develop a sense of belonging. This means we get to develop those skills in a forum we are comfortable and safe in, rather than feeling like a vulnerable outsider.
- Executive function and strategy skills from gaming. Many games need you to plan ahead and use past data to predict future outcomes.
- Motor skills and improving reflexes. While I may never have the motor skills and reflexes of an NT, they’ve significantly improved through gaming, through the active use of hand-eye co-ordination.
- Critical thinking: needs a guide to support this, but learning to evaluate fact from fiction, opinion based on anecdote from researched and analysed material, to consider whether the source is reliable or whether they have a personal or financial bias, is very much part of learning from the internet. Unlike school where we are given ‘facts’ and told they are true and to remember them, the internet gives a wide and often contradictory array of ‘facts’ with each faction declaring them as absolute truth. This means we need to develop critical thinking to decide which ‘facts’ are worth keeping and using and which aren’t.
- Confidence and self-esteem: Imagine living in a world you don’t understand and nothing is designed for the way your brain works. Where doing things the NT way leads only to struggle and failure. Wherever you go you are attacked for being wrong – AND IT’S ALL YOUR FAULT. Where no one accepts the real you and you are allowed to remain in groups only if you provide extra value and NEVER make a mistake. How high would your confidence and self-esteem be? Now imagine going into a world where you aren’t judged on your NT social skills, where people encourage and support you, where you are a welcome member of the team, even a leader. That is multi-player gaming for a LOT of autistic children. And even if you don’t play multi-player games, finding like-minded people, people who share your passions and interests through social media gives a strong sense of belonging. Even playing games solo boosts confidence – this is a world you can control, where you can win, where you aren’t under threat. Where you are given challenges to solve without a prescribed way to solve them or social expectation to solve them in a certain time. That feeling when you beat a particularly hard level you’ve spent weeks trying to figure out is indescribable.
- Screens can provide both visual and auditory stimming. I play with the sound off because gaming sounds push a high sense higher and I find it dysregulating. My daughter on the other hand finds them calming and a pleasurable part of the game.
- It can provide a low processing environment. Familiar, routine games or films/video/YouTube etc. allow your brain to switch off because you know what’s coming next. There are no surprises to watch out for, no unpredictable changes, no threat. I love a couple of Australian soaps, I have watched them on and off since they started to air in my early 20’s. I can tell you exactly how each plot line is going to play out and how each character is going to respond to a situation. And I love that. I wish it it was anywhere as near as easy as that in real life.
- It can provide an outlet for anger. Physical aggression to others isn’t acceptable but splatting monsters and watching them disintegrate is fine. As is picturing the faces of your bullies on those monsters.
- It provides a safe, controllable space. As a child you may have very little autonomy outside, but with gaming, this is your world, your way.
Screen time isn’t all sunshine and roses. There are downsides. One of the big issues that many parents have is the fear that screen-time, particularly gaming, is addictive. While I do believe there are genuine cases of gaming addiction, the answer is not always that simple.
The most common reason that we become unable to leave the screens to enter real life is because the screens provide a safe space, predictable and controllable, that we fit in. Whereas, outside is chaotic, threatening and unwelcoming. For myself, the closer I am to burnout, the harder it is to leave my simple, easily winnable games. It is a giant warning sign that my nervous system is overloaded, and it is trying to rest and reset in the best way it knows. If I deal with the outside environment so that I’m no longer badly stressed, the craving to game goes away. I still enjoy it and use it as part of my regulating routine every day but I can stop when I need to and move on. If your child is unable to leave their rooms or their games, don’t blame the gaming, rather look to the environment and ask yourself what stressors are there that is causing them to need to regulate so much.
The other reason that is overlooked is our need for completion. For many of us autistics, this is an overwhelming need. This means that if we are on a difficult level or something that takes significant time to complete, we may be very unwilling to stop and do something else. Not because we are addicted but because we need to complete. If we are pulled off to do something else, our mind is still stuck back trying to complete the game we were forced to leave. It feels like wire wool being vigorously scrubbed over your brain.
This can be used to our benefit as well. I am an endless Facebook scroller – I often scroll for a purpose, in order to advise on multiple autistic-led parent support groups – but hours can vanish if I am not careful. However, if I give myself an effective completion point, I don’t get lost in the same way. I give myself a set number of comments – when that is complete, my brain marks the activity as done and allows me to move on. If I don’t remember to do this, then my brain has no idea when the activity is complete and just keeps going. Time limits and alarms don’t work for me – I have no sense of time so whether the limit is five minutes or an hour the alarm is still a nasty unexpected shock to the system, like a bucket of ice water being dropped onto me and I become angry and dysregulated. Undoing all the regulation benefits of the original screen-time.
For many parents this is a common theme. They set time limits rather than establishing a proper completion point. Then assume that the game is causing dysregulation not their actions in abruptly removing someone from their safe space and not allowing proper completion of the game. This is a very common misunderstanding and a mistake I used to make a lot when my daughter was small. I didn’t bother to find out where she was in her game, all I was focused on was leaving the house at a certain time. So, I would give her a five-minute warning and tell her to finish and save. And at five minutes to the second on the clock, I insisted she finish and switch off. After all, I had given her ample warning. And World War Three would break out. As she became more capable of articulating what was going on, she explained she needed to finish. From that point on we had a different arrangement. Before she started to play, she would check what time was available and we would negotiate a completion point. At fifteen minutes before she needed to finish, I would check in and see whether she was on target to finish. If not, I would ask her to pick a closer completion point. And instead of both of us leaving angry and dysregulated, the transition became smooth. It didn’t always work perfectly, sometimes I had to deal with the discomfort of being late to give her the extra five minutes she needed and needed to do a LOT of deep breathing to stop myself reaching for the off switch. But over time, we got it down to a fine art.
As an adult she still plans her gaming this way – if there is a two-hour quest, she isn’t going to start it half an hour before heading off to meet with friends, she will find a half hour activity that allows her to complete instead.
It’s the same for both of us for TV programmes – we can’t leave a show or a film halfway through. If we haven’t the time to finish the episode, we don’t start it.
Being unable to complete properly is not the only reason gaming can be dysregulating.
Some games are designed to increase adrenaline but don’t offer the physical activity to burn it off. If this is the case, then building in physical activity breaks between levels can be very helpful.
Gaming can be extremely frustrating at times – that dopamine hit of gaining the win is held just out of reach – and you fail over and over and over again. And as you become more frustrated, you get trapped into the need for the dopamine and your processing starts to overload, reducing your ability to play properly. Learning to take a break at the first signs of frustration to regulate and give yourself a dopamine hit from something else is a valuable lifetime skill. You aren’t leaving the game, you can still complete, you are just pressing pause to power up.
Multi-player games can include bullying. And being bullied in your safe space takes away all sense of security – now nowhere is safe. Understandably, if this is occurring anxiety goes through the roof. This is why safe spaces for gaming are so important. And why Spectrum Gaming (link) is such a valuable charity that deserves every bit of support it can get. If your child reports bullying to you, take it seriously. Don’t victim blame, asking what they did to cause the bullying. Ask what happened, help identify where misunderstandings may have occurred, help them advocate for their differences and their right to be themselves without fear of attack. Help them find safer and less judgemental spaces.
Screen-time is going to be very much part of our children’s lives, it is part of the world of work, it is part of our recreation, it is part of our social life. Refusing to recognise that deprives all children the opportunity to learn to navigate it safely with a supportive guide and a safety net. For autistic children it can deprive them of so much more, because for us screens bring us so many benefits and suits the way our neurology works so well. That isn’t to say to allow unsupervised access, or not to have conversations about content, or to be ok if it is a 24/7 need. Especially the 24/7 need because that is a giant red flag that your child is not doing well, that they are dealing with trauma, stress or burnout. And that needs to be addressed – not the gaming, because that is how they are healing, but the damage they are trying to heal from. If a child is doing well, then they will want to do other activities and only have gaming as part of their routine and not the whole of it. Unlimited access, though is good, even advisable, because it reduces anxiety about being able to retreat to their safe space and potential loss of their safe space.
Finally – NEVER use removal of screen-time as punishment for an autistic child, particularly for dysregulated behaviour. I don’t believe punishments and rewards are good for any child. I know they can have severely adverse effects on autistic children. But removing a safe space from a child who is feeling terrified and unsafe is a terrible thing to do, and should never be considered an option.