An article has been published today about a research study investigating the effects of screen time on young children. We wanted to share our views on this study and the facts behind a misleading headline.

The Daily Mail online ran the headline: Babies glued to tablets or television during the coronavirus lockdown 'could develop autism-like symptoms', controversial study warns.

We were asked to comment on the study before this article was published. This is what our Director of Science Dr James Cusack thought of the study:

“It is absurd to claim, based on these results, that screen time has any association with autism or how autistic someone is. Families deserve better science than this – particularly right now.

“First of all the effect of screen time observed in the study is small. Secondly, the tool used to observe the effect is not particularly effective at detecting autism. Thirdly, the measure is used at two years old, an age where children develop at different rates and where we know it is hard to accurately diagnose autism.

“In the very unlikely event that this study was accurately detecting autism or the presence of traits, this study would still be fatally flawed. This is because a result like this could be simply down to an increased preference for screen time in children who show increased traits associated with autism.

“In the editorial which accompanies this article, the author suggests that screen time must be limited because we must start with the Hippocratic oath – “to do no harm”. I would argue, on the contrary, there is nothing more harmful than poor science.

“Clearly, as most families understand, there is a balance to be struck in terms of screen time, but science like this is completely unhelpful. Scientists and journal editors must do a better job of serving families than this. Families should not be concerned that allowing their young children to watch screens will cause autism – it would be absurd to reach this conclusion based on this evidence.”

Given the current lockdown, when many families are relying on some screen time to entertain and educate their children, we are concerned that this study may get a lot of media coverage.

As with any article reporting the results from a research study, always look for the strength of the evidence behind claims before making changes to the way you live your life. The website Ask For Evidence has some useful tips.