Technology use is ubiquitous among today’s youth (Rideout, Foehr, & Roberts, 2010). This probably does not come as a surprise because it seems that kids and their gadgets are everywhere. The current generation of youth has even been referred to as the iGeneration or the app generation. From 2004 to 2009, the proportion of 8- to 18-year-olds owning their own cell phone grew from 39% to 66% and the proportion owning an iPod or MP3 player jumped from 18% to 76% (Rideout et al., 2010). Today, these numbers are likely to be even higher.
Youth with ASD and Technology
Although all youth are frequent users of technology, research indicates that youth with ASD are using technology even more than their typically developing peers. One recent study found that youth with ASD spent more time engaged with TV and video games than any other leisure activity and that their tech use outpaced that of their typically developing siblings (Mazurek & Wenstrup, 2013). Specifically, youth with ASD spent 62% more time watching TV and playing video games than in all other non-screen activities combined. However, the research also shows that youth with ASD spent less time using social media or socially interactive video games than their typically developing siblings.
Risks of Technology Use
Unfortunately, youth with ASD are more likely to have problematic or addictive patterns of technology use and are more vulnerable online. Researchers have found high levels of addictive video game use and Internet use among ASD youth (Mazurek & Wenstrup, 2013; MacMullin, Lunsky & Weiss, 2016). Among boys with ASD, problematic video game use was also associated with troublesome symptoms such as inattention and oppositional behavior (Mazurek & Engelhardt, 2013). Youth with ASD may be more vulnerable online than their typically developing friends. For example, youth with ASD are more likely to encounter bullying, victimization, and social exclusion (Lough, Flynn, & Riby, 2015). Furthermore, interacting through digital devices comes with a distinct set of social rules to understand and abide by. Learning such rules could be another pitfall for teens with ASD.
Benefits of Technology Use
Everything is not doom and gloom, however! Technology presents several unique benefits for youth with ASD. Online, youth with ASD can meet others and spend time researching and engaging with their special interests (Gillespie-Lynch, Kapp, Shane-Simpson, Smith & Hutman, 2014). They can form social connections in a different way and bond over mutual interests. One recent study described two important benefits of communicating via technology for people with ASD (Gillespie-Lynch et al., 2014). First, individuals have increased comprehension of and control over communication. A teen with ASD can take time to craft a reply via a text message or email. Second, there is increased contact with and social support from similar others who may be geographically distant. Mutually satisfying friendships can develop with others across the world.
Tips for Parents and Professionals
So, how can parents and professionals help minimize the risks and maximize the benefits of technology for teens with ASD?
Setting Rules and Limits – Research has shown that setting rules and limits around technology use is very important. Youth who have rules and limits on their technology use spend less time engaged with their devices and show lower rates of problematic behavior (Engelhardt & Mazurek, 2014). The following are some specific examples of rules and limits (Engelhardt & Mazurek, 2014; Gold, 2015):
- Limit in-room access to video games
- Establish clear time limits for game and internet use
- Use a large timer that is not on a phone or computer
- Start giving warnings 15 minutes prior to shutdown
- Give reminders every 5 minutes prior to shutdown
- Help with the transition by clearly indicating what the next activity will be
- Provide encouragement when the teen is able to unplug successfully
Guiding Appropriate Online Behavior – You can help teens to have successful and satisfying interactions with others through technology. Explicit “dos” and don’ts” for technology etiquette can help demystify digital relationships for teens. The following recommendations are from Gold (2015):
- Help the teenager present his or her real self on social media and the internet
- Help the teen cultivate both digital and real-life relationships
- Encourage the teen to connect to real-life friends and classmates via texts and social media
- Encourage and guide online disclosure in moderation
- Encourage the teen to use the internet for self-expression and social connection
- If online interactions are making the teen anxious, encourage him/her to take a break
- Be wary of overdependence, excessive reassurance seeking, and preoccupation with online relationships.
Attitude is Important – How can you set limits and rules, and encourage appropriate behavior with your teen? What is the best way to go about all of this? Maintaining an open and curious attitude is crucial. Explore technology with the teen and be careful about using language that might be perceived as judgmental. Make it clear that you are available should something confusing or concerning happen – the teen will not get in trouble for seeking help. Remember that for youth with ASD, socialization and communication can be experienced differently. Technology presents a myriad of new opportunities for youth with ASD to connect to others in ways that are comfortable for them. With your help, the teen can unlock a new world that plays to their strengths and potential.
Want more? Check out Screen Smart Parenting: How to Find Balance and Benefit in Your Child’s Use of Social Media, Apps, and Digital Devices. By Jodi Gold, MD.
Danielle Francois, MS, is a Clinical Psychology Doctoral Candidate at Long Island University – Post and a Pre-doctoral Extern at ASPIRE Center for Learning and Development. Shana Nichols, PhD, is a Licensed Psychologist and Owner, Director, and Researcher at ASPIRE Center for Learning and Development.
Engelhardt, C. R., & Mazurek, M. O. (2014). Video game access, parental rules, and problem behavior: A study of boys with autism spectrum disorder. Autism, 18, 529-537.
Gillespie-Lynch, K., Kapp, S. K., Shane-Simpson, C. Smith, D. S., & Hutman, T. (2014). Intersections between autism spectrum and the internet: Perceived benefits and preferred functions of computer-mediated communication. Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, 52, 456-469.
Gold, J. (2015). Screen-smart parenting: How to find balance and benefit in your child’s use of social media, apps, and digital devices. New York, NY: The Guilford Press.
Lough, E., Flynn, E., & Riby, D. M. (2015). Mapping real-world to online vulnerability in young people with developmental disorders: Illustrations from Autism and Williams Syndrome. Review Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 2, 1-7.
MacMullin, J. A., Lunsky, Y., & Weiss, J. A. (2016). Plugged in: Electronics use in youth and young adults with autism spectrum disorder. Autism, 20, 45-54.
Mazurek, M. O., & Engelhardt, C. R. (2013). Video game use and problem behaviors in boys with autism spectrum disorders. Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders, 7, 316-324.
Mazurek, M. O., & Wenstrip, C. (2013). Television, video game and social media use among children with ASD and typically developing siblings. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 43, 1258-1271.
Rideout, V. J., Foehr, U. G., & Roberts, D. F. (2010). Generation M2: Media in the Lives of 8-to 18-Year-Olds. Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation.