from Malva: When Benjamin was in second grade, “Gameboys” were all the rage. Picking Benjamin up at school one afternoon, here’s what I observed: four of his classmates sitting lined up on a bench, madly clicking away on their Gameboys, eyes glued to screens, voices harsh and flat, obsessed with the activity, Gameboys functioning like black holes for the boys’ collective energy and focus.
The marked absence of interpersonal connection, sincere interaction, and eye-contact during this “playtime” brought me up short; I was struck by how the boys’ behaviors were mimicking many key deficits of autism, all because of their focus on these little technological devices. The magnetic draw of those Gameboys far outweighed the attraction of simply playing together—roughhousing, talking, perhaps building something, or engaging in some form of creative teamwork.
Now, fifteen years later, there’s an increasing need for intervention programs to help with technology addiction. We are seeing atrophied interpersonal and communication skills in young people as they text one another, even when it comes to difficult relationship issues that should be dealt with in person (like whether to break it off with a boyfriend or girlfriend). Young adults entering the workforce are lacking many of the skills needed in working as a team. Even the most basic family dynamics are disturbed as the irresistible iPhone becomes a constant companion at the dinner table.
Having dedicated my life to helping Benjamin break the barriers of his autism—to the point that his heartfelt and sincere connection with other people is the central joy in his life—I am particularly aware of the irony that, all around us, kids and adults are being drawn in the opposite direction by technological devices, computer games, etc. Benjamin himself has repeatedly found that, when he spends more than minimal time on a computer, his autistic tendencies become more pronounced.
Fortunately, I kept Benjamin 100% “screen free” (that included TV) from the time of birth until he was about 10 years old and truly emerging from the depths of autism. After that, computer-time occurred only during the school day (for basic word-processing and small assignments). Once middle school began and screen-time increased (Benjamin began playing “educational computer games” as a reward for completing assignments), he quickly displayed increasing levels of anxiety, agitation, anger, OCD, and social withdrawal. My strategy was simple: I asked teachers to cut back his screen-time to the bare minimum (relevant assignments only, no games) and saw a direct correlation to improved behavior. By shifting the focus back to interpersonal teaching and engagement, Benjamin’s mental and emotional equilibrium was restored.
Over the years, since then, we’ve engaged in ongoing discussions, helping Benjamin identify his limits in relation to technology. (Not that he was happy about it – it didn’t take much exposure for him to behave as if “addicted” and to wildly protest my intervention, just as any typical teen might do). However, I persevered, and with growing maturity, Benjamin has taken on the task of policing himself: nowadays, he uses technology on a limited basis for both work and enjoyment, consciously minimizing exposure of his own volition.
Why tell you all this background? I am calling for parents to take a stronger stand on limiting the amount of screen-time in their children’s lives—particularly when they are young, with rapidly developing brains and bodies. Whether a child has autism or not, I feel that parenting must encourage three essential aspects of life: plenty of physical movement, socialization with peers, and playtime with toys and scenarios which encourage creative imagination. Time spent using computer technology stands in direct opposition to these developmental needs: the child is being passive and sitting still, is disconnecting from human interaction, and is taking in pre-programmed materials.
Parents, please don’t underestimate your power in teaching your child healthy habits, and do enlist the parents in your circle to join in. Remember, it takes a village to raise a child. With the constant presence and draw of technology, our children need reminders that spending “real-person-time” with buddies is more important and satisfying than playing with a computer. We can team up with friends to get this message across. When someone other than mom or dad takes the same stance, chances are, your child will “hear” them more readily and take note, even if they’ve been ignoring you. (We can all relate to that dynamic, right?)
Also, when expectations are consistent, there’s a greater chance of making an impact. If your child is spending time at a friend’s house, ask the supervising parent to be clear about “hang time” being “real-person-time,” and have them say something like, “I see things the same way your mom does. If you need to, we can phone her and double check, but she told me that today’s playtime may not include technology.”
And, of course, we adults need to lead by example! Actions speak louder than words…