Yet again, at the ripe old age of 28, I find myself teetering perilously on the brink of “back in my day” territory, something I swore at 18 I’d never give in to. But then again, it’s not like screen addiction wasn’t a thing when I was a kid, (back in the late Pleistocene) when it was TV and Gameboys.
Us Autistics can be especially vulnerable to screen addiction. In a world that’s often intense, scary, or inadequately stimulating, our various devices offer a refuge we can retreat to any time, an ever-present source of comfort, distraction, and stimulation. And in moderation, this can be a useful coping mechanism.
The problem arises when this refuge becomes a dependency; a comfort zone that we never leave. Comfort zones are sterile places; nothing grows there. If we retreat to our smartphone every time we’re in a social situation, we’ll never get the practice we need to develop social skills that don’t come naturally to us. If we bury ourselves in Minecraft on our tablet at the first sign of discomfort, we’ll never learn the resilience to cope with the world around us.
Screen use can also play havoc with our sleep cycles; the blueish light tricks the brain into thinking it’s looking at daylight, and keeps us awake and alert. It’s like drinking coffee through your eyes. To combat this I’ve made my bedroom a screen-free zone, and set myself a 10pm screen curfew.
Another helpful trick is to have breaks, like going to the beach or out to lunch or whatever and not bringing a tablet. At the camps I help run at I CAN Network, we take all the kids’ phones and tablets when they arrive, and give them back at the end of the camp. While there’s some separation anxiety at first, they quickly learn to cope without them, and over the course of the weekend they come out of their shells and start to engage more with the activities and their peers.
Like most things, our phones, tablets and computers have both positive and negative aspects. They can be wonderfully useful tools, but they can also be addictive and isolating, especially for people on the autism spectrum. The key is moderating their use so that they act as a support, not a shackle.