The role of cellular phone usage by parents in the increase in ASD occurrence: A hypothetical framework
Abstract Over the last few decades there has been a significant worldwide increase in the diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder (ASD), the causes of which are unknown. The biggest environmental change over this decade has been the massive introduction of cellphones. Eye contact is fundamental for infants' development, and parent-infant eye contact is impaired when parents are pre occupied by cellphones. We speculate that children with a pre-existing vulnerability to autism may be adversely affected by this pattern of parental behavior. As a first step toward exploring our hypothesis, we wished to document the extent of cellular phone usage by parents during their child's diagnostic developmental assessment. We speculated that, if under these stressful circumstances of awaiting their child's crucial assessment the parent is not fully engaged with his/her child, then in real daily activities this phenomenon is likely much more pronounced. Of 111 developmental sessions, 73 parents (66%) engaged their phone during the assessment, between 1 and 20 times. Of 62 observations in the waiting room, 52 (83.9%) parents used their phone, 1–19 times. Nine parents (17.3%) used their phone for 10–50% of the time and 16 (30.8%) for more than 50% of the time in the waiting room. In our analysis, the rate of language/motor delays was twice more common among children of cell phone users than among non users (p = 0.04) as an initial support of our hypothesis. Parents' focus and full attention toward their cellphones can adversely affect the development of joint attention in infants and may contribute to the development of autistic features among a vulnerable subgroup of infants. While more research is needed to prove causation, it would be reasonable to advise parents to decrease to minimum the usage of cellphones when interacting with their young children.