Babies glued to tablets or television during the coronavirus lockdown could develop autism-like symptoms later in childhood, warns a new study.
Researchers found screen time, as well as not enough parent-child play time, was linked to toddlers showing less interest in social interactions.
An American study of more than 2,100 children looked at the effect screen time has on their development.
Parents and guardians were asked how often their baby is exposed to screens or books at their 12- and 18-month health check-ups. They were also asked how often they play with their child.
Researchers then examined how watching television or videos, as well as social play time and reading together, were linked to autism spectrum disorder (ASD) symptoms at age two.
Toddlers were screened with an autism test called the Modified Checklist for Autism in Toddlers (M-CHAT) which asks 20 questions about the child’s behaviour.
Children with ASD-like symptoms show little interest in interacting with others and engaging in social activities – the opposite of most toddlers.
Results showed viewing screens aged 12 months was associated with four per cent greater ASD-like symptoms.
And daily play time with a parent was linked to nine per cent less ASD-like symptoms, compared to less than daily play.
The authors suggest these findings come at a critical time during the coronavirus pandemic when many children are at home all day.
Parents are juggling working from home with schooling so look to screens for help and distraction, they say.
Lead author Dr Karen Heffler from Drexel University in Philadelphia said: “The literature is rich with studies showing the benefits of parent-infant interaction on later child development, as well as the association of greater screen viewing with developmental delays.
“Our study expands on this previous research by associating early social and screen media experiences with later ASD-like symptoms.”
Senior author Dr David Bennett, also from Drexel University, said: “These findings strengthen our understanding of the importance of play time between parents and children relative to screen time.
“There is a great opportunity for public health campaigns and pediatricians to educate and empower parents to possibly minimise their child’s risk of ASD symptoms, which may include increasing social interaction and limiting screens at an early age.”
The authors note their study found an association with ASD-like symptoms, but not ASD itself.
They are calling for future studies to investigate whether the relationship is determined by children predisposed to ASD being more drawn to screens, or screens contributing to symptoms.
The findings were published in the journal JAMA Pediatrics.