Digital Autism: How Smart Phones and Digital Media Affect Your Child’s Early Development

Andrew Doan, MD, PhD, Neuroscientist and Co-Founder of Real Battle Ministries

Smartphones and digital media. Harmless modern pacifiers or mind-altering devices can hinder your child’s development and may result in digital autism? Andrew Doan, MD, PhD, Neuroscientist, and co-founder, Real Battle Ministries, has extensively researched technology addiction.

His clinical knowledge in visual systems and his research training in neuroscience give him a unique perspective into the impact of technology has on brain development. He will tell us how technology affects our children, their ability to learn and what we can do to help.

Video Chapters:

00:00 Intro

2:27 – Who is at risk for technology addiction?

5:32 – Signs your toddler has a tech addiction

7:20 How to help a child with a healthy use of technology

9:17 – Is there a link between excessive use of digital media use and autistic symptoms

12:06 – What is the long-term impact on children’s exposure to technology?

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Full Interview Transcript

Kelly:                    Dr. Doan, thank you so much for being here.

Dr Doan:              Thank you so much for having me, it’s a pleasure.

Kelly:                    You have a really interesting background. Can you tell us how you got into being an expert in technology addiction?

Dr. Doan:             My background is that first off I was MD PhD from Hopkins where I studied molecular Neuroscience in learning and memory. So, I’ve always had an interest on how the brain forms memories and connect that with behaviours. Being a neuroscientist, we study the brain as the computer that controls the body. So as I ventured into the modern area we started my colleagues who are clinicians as well social workers and therapists and early development specialists noticed that there were children that seemed to look like addicts with digital media meaning that digital media being anything on the phone or the screen like animated stuff or movies and then video games and then all the way up to explicit sexual material, right.

So what we discovered was that when it looks like an addiction, smells like an addiction, and everything are the signs of addiction, it has to be addiction. So my wife and I started a ministry called Real Battle Ministries where we lecture all over the world and through the internet using it as a tool to educate parents to warn them about the addictive aspect of digital media.

Kelly:                    How is technology addiction different from other types of addiction? Are certain people more susceptible or is everybody at risk if you are exposed to too much technology?

Dr. Doan:             I think everyone’s at risk. The model for addiction is stress leads to a craving for a ritual to relieve that stress in life. If you picked a proper ritual to let’s say soothe that stress, then it becomes healthy. For example, I was on a plane, a long plane ride and I was observing two children in public. So these aren’t patients, we are not breaking HIPPA or any medical guidelines. This is public and I’m just observing this in public. Both were roughly about the same age, about two, and they are girls.

One had a stuffed animal and she was sucking her thumb to self soothe and then she had a blanket and she was using it to self soothe. It was interesting because I would look at her, try to engage and she would just smile and then she leaned back to her mom and then she felt comfortable but she wasn’t scared and she knew how to interact.

The other two year old in front of me, the Mom literally had on the entire flight, the phone in front of her face on a cartoon. Then, the pilot announced please turn off your digital devices. She turned off the digital device so it’s kind of like now I’m plugging the IV drip of valium. The baby just freaks out. I’m just observing. I don’t even interact or everything. So she’s trying to calm this baby down. The child comes up and looks at me and starts crying more. She goes, I’m sorry, she has stranger anxiety. That’s what she said.

Then, when the plane gets dark, or stopped in the tarmac, Dad calls on the phone. She wants her cartoon back, her Mom says, “No, Dad’s on the phone. Do you want to talk?” “No, I want my cartoon.”

So what I’m trying to describe to you is that, okay, using digital media that’s very arousing hijacks that little child’s thought to the point where Daddy becomes less important because now the digital drug becomes more important and more fun, more arousing, more whatever, more escaped, more stimulating, whatever term you want to use, it’s more addicting. Whereas the other child who used the blanket, sucking her thumb, her Mom’s presence, and also the blanket as a soothing mechanism was able to handle the entire plane ride without a peep and also deal with me, who was this strange bald guy, looking at her trying to talk to her because she was sitting really the aisle across right for me.

That is the problem, the big white elephant, that’s really in the room right now because are we exposing digital media to our children to the point we are giving them a drug not knowing it taking it safe, healthy, and making them better in the modern age, but what we’re doing is disrupting very critical brain development in these kids.

Kelly:                    How do you know if your toddler had a technology addiction, what are the signs?

Dr. Doan:             So first of all we had to look for withdrawal symptoms, taking away, having fits, having temper tantrums. But that’s hard because kids have usually temper tantrums anyway. Then, the other thing is maybe lying or deceiving parents to get to use more. So what we see is that kids will say, yes, I’ve done my homework or yes I’ve read my book or yes I’ve done this or cleaned my room whatever only to find out they shortcut what they were supped to do to go for the reward.

The other thing is could be are they giving up other things like playing with children or playing with their dog or playing with their pets or even playing with their siblings or even interacting with the parents because they prefer the screens more, or they won’t eat unless they have the screens that kind of thing. Then, you have to look for basically asking it all the time and then pontification of thoughts.

So what happens is there is this something that happens with digital media that it gets imprinted the brain, the child can replay that super arousing digital media over and over and over and over again. So even though you take it away from the child they may be playing that game over and over again; game, game, game. You’re trying to engage with your child and they are thinking game, game, game. If that becomes now the number one thought in their life, that would be similar to an addict who withdraw from alcohol, crave alcohol, lie to get alcohol, trade other things to get alcohol, financially get in trouble for alcohol, meaning that they spend all their money on games or alcohol. Then, finally, all they think about is how do I get drunk next and what is my next event where I can drink.

Literally, alcoholics will plan their holiday parties only at parties where they can get alcohol. If that looks like an addiction, it’s probably an addiction to your child.

Kelly:                    So how do you help a child who has these signs and symptoms?

Dr. Doan:             First off, you have to remove them from the addictive behaviour. You can’t try to moderate it. So if your child looks like an addict, looks like a screen addict and you recognize the symptoms, then really you need to take it away. You can’t moderate it because the mistake that parents have and I see this a lot when I talked to parents through our ministry and through whatever experience I have because they emailed me and asked questions. They’ll have problems.

You know, Victoria Dunkley for example, Dr. Victoria Dunkley is a Pediatric Psychiatrist out of LA who wrote the book Reset, how to reset your child’s mind. What she showed was a 38 detox meaning that when you removed the screens completely from the child behaviours are improved. Temper tantrums, grades improved. She has even claimed that she’s had, actually she reports that she’s had literally many, many, of her patients who had mental diseases or disorders like depression, anxiety, and even like a typical schizoid and schizophrenic behaviours after a 38 detox actually get better or sometimes completely resolves. Actually, oftentimes completely resolves.

So the mistake that you get is that the parent takes it away and then the parent gives it back to the child because they don’t want to be the bad person because everyone around, the child is playing video games. So they want to be the good person and give it back and try to moderate. So often I ask parents and said, if you know your child has an alcohol addiction or marijuana addiction, do you try to moderate that addiction? Do you try to give them a little bit alcohol everyday to try to reintroduce that back in their life? Of course not. So we’re doing that with digital screens.

The other thing Kelly I want to share with you is that I worked with a group, Lori Froam and also Dr. Karen Hefler out of Exeter University and they are working with early autistic and asperger’s diagnosis in children.

Lori Froam is actually an early educational or early behavioural interventionist. What they have found is that in autistic children, in asperger’s children on the spectrum whether it’s high or low autistic, if you remove the screens completely from their homes, it completely changes their developmental trajectory. Sometimes even the child will drop their diagnosis of autism. There is actually doctors in Romania and France who actually have coined the term digital autism because it doesn’t look like classic autism, it doesn’t match the criteria for autism so they kind of call it like autistic like behaviour or it could be early autism or sometimes the term asperers. They see this on the more functional autism. They think that that’s caused by digital screens often.

So what she does, Lori Froam and also these other doctors who are Romanian and France, they actually take a digital history inventory of the household and they recommend removing all the digital screens from the house and they see dramatic results because if you have an autistic child who pontificates on that one thing, they are all from thinking. When you take away that thing that makes them blow up in their brain only digital media skill sets, guess what? They start talking more, they have eye contact, they start dealing with, being uncomfortable from other people, they actually work on developing other skill sets that changes their developmental trajectory.

So whether you have genetic autism or a digital autism these kids improve without the screens.

Kelly:                    So you’re saying, just the use of technology and how you’re using it can cause autistic symptoms in your children?

Dr. Doan:             You know, that’s what we’re seeing. I would say excessive use of digital media. I don’t want to scare people here and say, oh, you know technology is so evil. Excessive use of digital media or early exposure to digital media could make autism worse, whether it causes it or makes existing autism worse, what we’re seeing from these clinical experiences that the child improves. There’s no research to show the direct correlation. But regardless if there’s research or not, we know that if we take the screens away, they change their developmental trajectory, meaning that they improve and sometimes even drop their diagnosis of autism.

Kelly:                    The short term implications and the long term implications – are they  just really the brain development, interacting with people is found that’s the biggest issue.

Dr. Doan:             Absolutely, especially in young kids. You know what? For me, I’m a 46 year old guy now. If I decided to go into being a tech addict, and I literally text like, I don’t know. Not text, I’m sorry. Play video games for a 120 hours a week or whatever, just a ton. But let’s say I developed skill sets earlier in life. I’m not going to lose my communication skills. I’m not going to lose my eye to eye contact. I’m not going to lose my empathy for other people. You see, because my brain has been fortified. You take a child who is let’s say young, let’s say three, and let them play even only 40 hours a week, you will see problems, serious mental health problems by the time they are 13, 14, 15, 16, if you let them play that since the age of two. So that’s why it’s so important to protect our kids from alcohol, drugs, smoking, nicotine. That’s why there are laws that protect kids from drugs that can be potentially addicting because if you expose the child to alcohol, marijuana, and even nicotine, much early on their life, you can affect that brain development. We know that from the drug that shows.

Kelly:                    This information you shared is so fascinating and such important for everybody because we live in a digital age and no one knows what the implications are. So is there anything else that you would want a parent of young children to know about technology that we haven’t covered?

Dr. Doan:             You guys are heroes for your children. It’s not going to be Dr. Doan or Melanie Hempy or Chris Rowin, or Victoria Dunkley or all these people who are working in the field already that are going to be heroes for your kids. You’re going to take this information from us, apply wisdom, data without wisdom is garbage. You can look at all the research you want but without wisdom it’s useless. So use your parental of wisdom to be your child’s hero. You have the chance to make a huge impact in your child’s life.

Because everyone’s using digital media, if you can take what I even said today and apply it to your children, your children with be outliers, will be successful outliers in the digital age because everybody else is suffering while your child is now developing essential behavioural neuro pathways that will be superior to everyone else.

Kelly:                    That is spot on, it’s amazing. I think I’m so glad to have you on here and talk about everything you know about this. It’s really great to have you on the show.

Dr. Doan:             Thank you, Kelly. Thank you for inviting me. I’m honoured. This is fun for me as you can tell I love it. I love doing this.


About Andrew Doan, MD, PhD

Dr. Andrew Doan is a recognized expert in digital media addictions. With a doctoral degree in neuroscience, his background in molecular neuroscience adds in depth knowledge into the areas of Internet Addiction, Video Game Addiction, and Technology Addiction. He is a doctor, doctor, i.e. M.D. and Ph.D., meaning that he was one of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) medical scientist doctors. Every year the NIH provides funding for the training of medical scientists, M.D./Ph.D.'s. These medical scientists comprise of about 200 students every year out of 16,000 medical students. They get paid to go through this eight year program to teach and do research. The goal is to create medical scientists and educators to teach and do research in medical schools and public settings. These medical scientists pick a clinical discipline as well as a basic science discipline. Dr. Doan chose ophthalmology as a clinical discipline which compliments well with his interest in neuroscience. He received his M.D. and Ph.D. degrees in neuroscience from Johns Hopkins, the premier neuroscience training program in the world. He has had over 10 years of experience doing research on learning, memory, and brain development.

The neurosensory retina in the eyes connect with the brain through approximately 2.4 million nerve fibers, making the eyes an extension of the brain. With Dr. Doan's clinical knowledge in visual systems and his research training in neuroscience, his expertise is unique and rare. He is able to speak with medical and scientific authority on brain development, the visual system, and how digital media work through the visual system to reprogram the brain via neuronal plasticity. For more information, visit:

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