SCREENS OR THE FACTORY OF AUTISM

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Screens are everywhere, all the time, from birth. Most often encouraged by the public authorities who support the digital colonization of the school, the question is too rarely asked about the danger they represent for the development and health of the child. To avoid ending up with a mass of addicted adults « disconnected » from real life, could not propagating the idea that parents have been well fooled by the consumer society be a lever to think differently about the world? Meeting with a doctor who works in France with these victims of the screen, Anne-Lise Ducanda. 

Kairos: Dr. Anne-Lise Ducanda, you work at the DPMIS (Direction de la protection maternelle infantile et de la santé), can you explain to us what your work consists of? 

Anne-Lise Ducanda : It is a public service related to health in the broadest sense, in which I have worked for fifteen years. I am in charge of the child protection side of things, that is to say that I do consultations for toddlers (0–3 years old), but also for children reported in difficulty by nursery school teachers. 

Have you noticed any changes in fifteen years? 

Many professionals in the field say that the work we do today is not at all the same as it was fifteen years ago. There are seven times as many children reported by teachers as there were when I arrived, and the difficulties are much more worrying and serious. 

What do you see that concerns you at this time? point? 

We have more and more children with developmental delays, all skills are affected: motor delay, fine motor skills, gross motor skills. This is particularly evident in language: more children arrive at school and do not speak, and by the age of four may not even say  » bababa, dada « . They are completely silent, inexpressive, and do not understand simple instructions. Some 3–4 year olds don’t understand when you say,  » Go get your shoes. « We have more and more behavioral problems, children who run away, run around, intolerant of frustration. 

When you observe an increase in these disorders, you are looking for, I suppose, the causes? 

I always take a lot of time to interview parents. For the past few years, when I ask parents how their child is occupied at home, they answer more and more frequently that what he loves is to go on the smartphone, to take the tablet given to him at Christmas for his eighteenth month, to watch TV:  » we have the package and we bought a special channel for babies (Baby TV) thinking it was good « . So I realized that all these children in difficulty were very often heavily exposed to screens. 

You talk about virtual autism… 

Yes, because the child was not born autistic, but became autistic because of the screens. If it’s a matter of 15 minutes of cartoon, there’s no problem. The troubled children I meet are in front of screens four to five hours a day, sometimes more… six to twelve hours, all day long! With a toy, after a while you have to find another one, another occupation for an eighteen months old baby… With the screen he stays glued if you don’t take him away, it keeps him busy and the parents take the opportunity to do something else. It’s a vicious circle, because when he gets to four, five hours, you can’t take it away from him, he’s like in withdrawal and he goes into a withdrawal crisis. He screams, he cries loudly, he bangs his head against the wall, and it scares the parents. Unfortunately, there are many parents who find no other solution than to put him back in front of the screen… 

Do parents not realize what is really going on? 

Some parents don’t realize: the child looks good, and above all they think they are doing well. Educational cartoons give parents the impression that the child is talking, except that talking is not repeating the word, but using it wisely to communicate with someone, it involves intention. When children repeat the colors, there is no intent to speak, I have four year olds walk into my office and no matter what I say, they respond with a color:  » Hello, sit down « , he will say to me:  » Blue « ;  » What is your name? « ,  » Green « . Some kids don’t even realize I’m talking to them. It is always the soundtrack of the TV, tablet or smartphone that « speaks » to them… There is not this turn of speech where I speak, the child listens to me, then it is him who speaks and it is me who listens. Others repeat everything that is said, this is called echolalia:  » What is the little girl doing? « , and the answer,  » What is the little girl doing? « .

On the other hand, there are many parents who think that if the TV is on in the same room as the child and he or she is not watching it, it is as if he or she is not exposed to the screens. That’s not true at all! If the child is making his or her little tower of cubes and thinking,  » I’ll put the blue one on… Oh that’s not it, I have to put the red one… « , his brain is making brain connections. At that moment he hears the commercial, he stops, he turns around and looks. And when he comes back to his tower of cubes, he’ll never finish it because if he knows the yellow doesn’t fit, he won’t think of putting the blue. So in fact the child, in the same room as the TV, cannot develop normally, it is not possible. 

To clarify for people who are not aware, these are not children disabled at birth… 

No, in fact, the parents tell me: « Until twelve to eighteen months, he said ’ Daddy, Mommy ‘, he answered to his name, he understood what we said. And then we bought him a tablet when he was eighteen months old and he loved it, he’s been using it five to six hours a day since then and he doesn’t say  » He nolonger understands when we talk to him, he no longer points to show us something . The problem of overexposure to screens for children is not only the child in front of his screen, it is the child who lives with parents who are on screens a lot and interact less with the child. So the child is attracted by the screen, has less adults to interact with, so the relationship is impoverished and the child will not develop language. Most importantly, he will develop what is called « virtual autism », which means that he does not communicate or interact with adults and people around him. There is a form of addiction, a form of attachment, that is to say that the child seeks out the screen and cannot do without it. By putting children in front of screens when they are small, we prepare an addiction for life, the child will never be able to do without screens. 

It should be noted that in addition to communication disorders, these children develop a second typical feature of autism: stereotypies, which are parasitic, repeated gestures that should not be seen in a normal child. Flapping is the most common, but there is also the child who spins around like a top, or spins around a room continuously, or opens a door and closes it continuously. The hypothesis to explain these behaviors is that when the visual and sound overexcitement experienced by the child in front of the screen stops and he/she gets used to it, something is missing and he/she looks for it. So he’s probably moving like this to recreate that overexcitement. Moreover, around 18 months‑2 years, a synaptic pruning occurs in the brain of the normal child: the brain removes the cerebral connections less used by the child to avoid an overabundance of synapses. The inappropriate visual and sound flashes coming from the screens prevent the synaptic pruning from being done correctly and leave aberrant connections in the brain that take the place of the good cerebral connections that are not stimulated enough (language, communication, motor skills…). This explains the disturbances in interactions, communication and stereotypies (MRI sections in autistic people have shown this). 

In what terms could we talk about parental responsibility? Do they lack information on the subject? 

Parents are not responsible at all: they are not informed. I see parents who, once informed, stop screens right away, or, with help, manage to stop screens. You have a lot of child psychiatrists, caregivers who do not ask the question of screens… If child psychiatrists are not informed, how do you expect parents to be informed? In addition, the screens are valued. An example: there is a fair at the kindergarten, the first prize is a tablet! In 2014, the tablet was the most sold « toy » in France! 

For children under six months old too?! 

For all ages! They say it’s educational and parents don’t want to miss out. We prepare the baby and the child for the world of tomorrow… A survey showed that 74% of parents say that the earlier their child is exposed to new technologies, the better he or she will be able to cope in tomorrow’s world. But a child is not a little man, he does not have the same needs as an adult. The little one needs to explore the world with his five senses: sight, hearing, taste, smell and touch. He has to touch with all his fingers, with his hands, he has to realize that an object is heavy, round, rough… but also all that his body can have as an effect on the real world: I throw a ball and it goes to the end of the room, this is crucial for the brain to establish cerebral connections and a correct synaptic pruning Children go outside less and less, even though it is essential for the development of a child; it is outside that very rich and important sensory and social experiences take place. 

You know what they say about Silicon Valley kids Valley, including those of the late Steve Jobs… 

All the kids in Silicon Valley go to school Waldorf which costs eighteen thousand euros/year and where there is no does not have a screen from three years to eighteen years. 

Doesn’t the conclusion you reached reflect also a consumerist logic? 

There is a huge economic logic. When children’s tablets first appeared in 2012, the advertising slogans followed; one article in What to Choose said,  » The tablet has become a Christmas must-have. To prevent your child from taking your tablet, you’ll buy him one that looks like yours: big screen, 2,000 apps, connected to the internet, wifi, etc. « Marketing logic has also created the « WOW! » effect. effect: when the child does his little puzzle or his little educational game, the screen will go:  » Wow, great, do it again! « There will be a little dancing man, little stars and everything is done so that the child starts again and does not get tired of it. This activates its reward system and the production of dopamine in the brain. 

All this is very expensive for the company? 

There is educational assistance for the parents at home, the school life assistant at school, all the check-ups at the hospital which are not always useful and are very expensive. All the speech therapy, psychomotricity, psychologist; children who will not be able to learn to write and read and who will be put in specialised institutions (medical educational institutes in France) at six years old, which are very expensive. This is a huge social and human cost. 

It would be much cheaper to ban them? 

The state is ambiguous, it favors all these companies that make tablets, smartphones, apps and are just waiting to dump them in schools. A partnership has been made with six Edtech companies and they are expected to flood the schools. And at the same time, the Minister said  » No screens between 0 and 7 years old « … I hope they take the tablets out of preschools. On the other hand, they still plan to flood schools with educational software for students between the ages of six and eighteen. I am convinced of the harm from 0 to 6 years old, but in my group of neuropsychiatrists, child psychiatrists, who take care of older children, also say that digital technology has never proven to be a plus for children, but rather a minus. We hope to be able to appeal to the government, also for the older ones, not to digitize until we are sure of an added value. So there are paradoxical injunctions: teachers hear that it’s not good, but on the other hand, they’ve been told that they have to digitize and use tablets in school, so they don’t really know what to do. 

Do you feel like you’re still really doing your job? Or to fight against something absurd? 

(Sigh) Our job is to fight against something absurd, more and more. In schools, I can no longer do a single screening visit, I’m just the fireman putting out the fire. I see children in great difficulty, who roll around on the floor, who don’t look me in the eye, who can’t learn, who can’t wait because they have always had the immediate pleasure of success with the screen, or, that as soon as they cry, the parent calms them down with the screen, they don’t know how to wait. He can’t take no for an answer. It is the society of everything, right now! 

The child no longer makes any effort with the screens. You know, the child, when he makes his little tower of cubes, he has to try three cubes before finding the right one and then when he puts the cube, he doesn’t succeed well, so it falls, he has to start again, … The child will not learn if he or she does not make an effort. One must start again, repeat, fail, start again, it is essential for a small child. 

When you talk about endocrine disruptors, pesticides, we could also add low frequency waves, directly linked to connected objects, which many other doctors, such as Dr Belpomme in France, and others, have shown to have dramatic effects as well… 

It’s true that I don’t talk about the airwaves because it’s something I know less about. I have observed the exposure to screens, the disorders that it develops in children, but we can imagine the effect of the waves on the brains in construction, with a cranial box less thick than an adult. In consultation, I have had babies in front of the screen since birth! We also have more and more children eating in front of a screen, because the meal is often a difficult moment for parents. But we notice that in front of the screen, the child does not eat but lets himself be fed, lets himself be done. In hospitals, now, to give painful care to children, they are put in front of a screen. The child no longer feels pain, no longer feels his body, his brain being completely captured by the screen. It looks like hypnosis. 

Doesn’t he know he’s eating? 

He doesn’t know he’s eating! He no longer feels hungry, he no longer feels hungry. He doesn’t know if he has liquid or solid in his mouth. He doesn’t know if he has a green bean, chocolate, milk or chicken in his mouth. The brain does not receive the information that it is eating at all and does not produce the gastric, biliary, pancreatic juices, all the enzymes of digestion. In fact, the brain no longer produces what it normally produces when we are eating, so we have children who do not digest, who are constipated, who have diarrhea, who have a stomach ache. This results in a lot of oral disorders; I meet some four year olds who can only drink from bottles or purees. They don’t realize that they have a piece in their mouth. I have a mother who said to me: « II tried two days without a screen and he didn’t cry, he didn’t even feel hungry. I had to hand him the screen to get him to open his mouth.  »

There are many children who are medicated, when it is the environment that creates the symptom for many of them. We talk about epigenetics, which means that genes will express themselves more or less according to the environment. Thus, some children will become hyperactive when without the environment they would not have become so. So let’s question the environment: when a child from 0 to 5 years old goes bad, all caregivers must now ask the question of screens, all of them! 

Is the best solution to resist to say to parents: « If you can’t do this, you can’t not have screens at home, do it! » 

They’re going to have a much harder time parenting with screens than without. From 0 to 5 years, it there is no point in having a screen, there is no point in buy him a tablet, give him the phone, … So don’t start! 

We understand that you are talking about the greatest public health challenge. I would like to end with a slightly provocative image… It is ironic that the West, in its great sense of superiority, speaks of « underdevelopment » when it refers to Africa. You say that your patients make miraculous progress when they return from a stay in Africa of several weeks… 

That’s right. I have had several children diagnosed with autism and three weeks after returning from a trip to Africa, the parents said to me,  » It’s impressive in terms of progress. « But this will be less and less true, and the increasing number of parents who call me from the Maghreb are proof of this. In these countries, they are less affected but they are beginning to be affected. 

The screen, in the end, screens the world real… 

The screen is a screen to the real world, it is a screen to all human relations, it is a screen to all learning, the exploration of the world that the child must do to learn and to grow… 

Interview by Alexandre Penasse
Transcribed by Sébastien Gillard 

This interview was filmed by Thomas Michel and is available on our website, www.kairospresse.be/article/smartphones-tablettes-television-attention-danger

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