The question of time spent online and the impact of being online for people with Asperger’s is not a simple black and white issue, although parents may frame it that way because it causes so much family conflict. Research is less helpful than you might think in providing answers, although it gives insight into the nuances of questions.
People often ask if (or assume that) Aspies are online more than others. Research to answer this question is on autism spectrum disorders (ASD) generally, not specifically Asperger’s Syndrome. Different criteria for ASD and ways of collecting data are used in different studies. With that caveat, findings differ, but most studies seem to suggest that children with ASD are online more than typical peers or other groups with challenges.
In my practice, many teenagers with Asperger’s are frequently online after school. They escape the pressures of school and their families by retreating to their rooms to play video games and watch Youtube. Screentime is often a focus of family conflict, since parents want children to spend family time together. Parents try taking away electronics, using behavior plans and nagging to pry young teens away from computers. Meltdowns are usually the result. Most of these children and teens are more adept at computers than their parents; they break through parental controls, are willing to “shut down” in protest of being deprived of technology, or have tantrums until parents give in.
Problematic game/internet use refers to use that is compulsive. Both problems sustaining attention and a preference for role playing games predict problematic game use for boys with ASD. There’s a link between ASD boys’ increased use of video games and compulsive behavior with electronics other than video games. There also seems to be connections between attention problems in general and executive functions difficulties (not just ASD) and problematic video game play. Not all children, teens or adults with ASD online have problematic internet use; it is unclear what percentage of those with ASD use technology compulsively.
One of my young teenagers has problems sustaining attention (in his case, ADHD) and an ASD, and he compulsively plays games at the expense of family time. He blames his withdrawal on his difficulty tolerating conflict that occurs among family members; often, the conflict is triggered by his behavior. He protests that family conversations are boring. It’s true that family conversations rarely focus on his interest in video games. His boredom is related to his self focus and his lack of interest in the experiences and feelings others in general; he finds his brother’s discussion of his college search and his sister’s discussion of her boyfriend boring. While this is understandable, it is important to help him find ways of engaging with others even when the focus isn’t on him and his interests.
The nature of online use as well as the amount of time spent online is important to consider. Time spent on social media sites such as Facebook can enhance the quality of both online and offline social relationships. Some connect via social media to what becomes a support system of others with similar issues or interests that they can’t find at home. However, the majority of youths with ASD spent most of their free time using non-social media. This can be problematic if children or teens with ASD fail to gain competence and practice with social contexts.
Dr. Shelly Turkle describes massively multiplayer online roleplaying games (MMORGs), in which people create alternate identities. She finds that many people balance multiple worlds and identities with their “RT,” real time world and identity. Some find the selves they have in their online worlds to be preferable to who they are in RT. People can learn planning, negotiation or management skills in these games that they can apply to RT life in positive ways; there can also be negative consequences.
One of my teens was very involved in her online identity. Online she had many relationships and her talent was much admired; in RT, she was isolated and faced with being defined by her challenges and limited ability to tolerate frustration. Her preference for her online world was understandable; however, it was one factor (of several) leading her to reject help to connect more at school and ultimately to school refusal.
Research on the impact of internet and technology use for all people with ASD of all ages is necessary. A huge challenge is that research needs to keep up with the changing nature of internet tools and use, such as AI. Whether people of all ages with ASD are online more than their age peers is important, but so is the impact of their internet use on their ability to successfully navigate everyday lives. Keeping children or teens off the internet is impossible at this point; investigating best practices on how to direct and limit use is much needed.
Montes, F. (2015). Children With Autism Spectrum Disorder and Screen Time: Results From A Large, Nationally Representative US Study. Academic Pediatrics, 16(2), 122-128.
Mazurek, M and Engelhardt, C. (2013). Video Game Use in Boys With Autism Spectrum Disorder, ADHD or Typical Development. Pediatrics, 132, 260-266.
MacMullin, J, Lunsky, Y. and Weiss, J. (2016). Plugged in: Electronics Use In Youth And Young Adults with Autism Spectrum Disorder, Autism, 20(1), 45-54.
van Schalkwyck, G, Marin, C, Ortiz, M, Rolison, M, Qayyum, , McPartland, J, Lebowitz, E, Volkmar, F, Silverman, W. (2017). Social Media Use, Friendship Quality, and the Moderating Role of Anxiety in Adolescents with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 47, 2805-2813.
Turkle, S. (1997) Life On The Screen: Identity In The Age Of Internet. New York: Touchstone.