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Digital Dilemma: Parenting Challenges in the Age of Virtual Autism

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By: Mehvish Shakeel

Autism, a complex neurodevelopmental condition, casts a shadow over the serene valleys of Kashmir. Among its youngest inhabitants, a new concern has arisen in the form of‘virtual autism’. While traditional autism is a well-understood neurodevelopmental disorder, virtual autism presents a unique challenge, often fueled by excessive screen time and digital exposure.

Autism and virtual autism, though related, differ in their origins and manifestations. Autism, a complex disorder with multifaceted causes, manifests early in childhood and affects communication, social interaction, and behavior. Conversely, virtual autism primarily stems from the pervasive influence of digital technology.

In an era dominated by screens, children in Kashmir, like their counterparts worldwide, are increasingly exposed to smartphones, tablets, and computers from an early is  found that children from 0-3 years, who stared at screens for over four hours a day, had “sensory-motor and socio-affective deprivation”. Dr. Bilal, a Clinical Psychologist at CGWC, reported 189 diagnosed cases of autism registered from 2019-2021, with 75 cases in 2022 and 78 cases till December 2023. Over the last two years, around 50 percent to 60 percent of children have exhibited symptoms akin to virtual autism.

The unintended consequences of excessive screen time are profound. Prolonged digital exposure during critical developmental stages can disrupt neural pathways, impair cognitive functions, and hinder social-emotional growth, leading to symptoms resembling autism.

Modern parenting dynamics, shaped by busy lifestyles and technological advancements, contribute to the rise of virtual autism. Parents may resort to digital devices as convenient distractions or rewards, inadvertently exacerbating the issue. As we see in our society.  Parents often say phrases like:

‘Khe bate bahaavai YouTube reels.’

‘Maa near nebarbehAndrakanvich phone.’

‘Vichtaam phone bakaraikaam.’

‘Ma haewadunRath phone.’

They consider it as love or care, but they’re inadvertently giving poisonous substances to their children.

Addressing virtual autism requires a multifaceted approach. Parents should reassess their reliance on digital devices, create screen-free zones, and allocate quality time for face-to-face interaction. Educators can promote digital literacy and critical thinking skills among children, while policymakers must enact measures to regulate digital device marketing and accessibility.

In conclusion, virtual autism poses a significant challenge to Kashmiri children’s well-being in the digital age. By recognizing the nuanced interplay between technology and development, stakeholders can collaboratively work towards mitigating risks and fostering resilient and digitally empowered individuals.

The writer is Clinical psychology student

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