My autistic teenager is constantly online

Parent Question:
My 14-year-old son, who is autistic, has become really dependent on his phone and computer and is spending nearly the whole day on some sort of device. Over the long summer it was hard to get him to do much else. In the heat of a row, I did remove his phone, and this sparked a serious meltdown – it was like I had severed one of his limbs.

Now that we are starting back into the school year, I am trying to get back into good routines. He does walk to school and has one good friend there (who might also be autistic, though undiagnosed) and they kept good contact online over the summer. He also does badminton which I am hoping he will restart. Academically, he is a good student. I am wondering what limits to set on technology. You read so much about the harm too much screen time can cause.

There are genuine concerns that excessive screen time, and particularly social media, can be associated with mental health problems in young teens. However, there is also interesting evidence which suggests that screen time may have a different role in the lives of autistic young people. In a recent US study, they found that while screen time was significantly associated with anxiety and depression in neurotypical youth, this was not the case for autistic youth. While social media might increase social comparison, poor self-esteem and stress for neurotypical teenagers, this does not seem to be the case for autistic teenagers.

While other studies have shown that autistic teenagers do have higher rates of depression and anxiety overall, it is likely that real-world stresses rather than online ones are the cause of this, such as exclusion in social groups, lack of support and understanding in school, etc.

When thinking about what limits to set around technology, the first thing to do is to consider what is the role of technology in your son’s life and what positive functions it might serve for him. Many autistic young people report positive benefits of technology in their lives. For example, many find the online world a unique way to connect with other autistic people or to pursue their specialised interests (such as video games or a love of history or chess or whatever) which may not be available to them in the real world.

Many autistic people also report how spending time online also serves as a way to decompress and relax from real-world stresses. Of course, there are still dangers and challenges for excessive online usage, but first try to understand the benefits and how it works in your son’s life.

Get to know your son’s online world
Ask your son to explain how he uses the online world and what things he enjoys to do. There might be opportunities to join him in some of these activities. For example, if your son has a passion for video games online, you could ask him to explain how the game works and get you set up on the first level so you can play him. Many autistic young people are delighted to explain their passions and interests to other people, so this can be an opportunity for you to connect and get to know him better.

Encourage him to think what limits are needed
A sense of autonomy is important for teenagers in general and for autistic teenagers in particular. So rather than imposing rules about screen time, take time to explore with him what rules and routines he thinks are necessary. Ask him what he thinks are the dangers of overuse and what he thinks is the best way to approach it. You can of course share your concerns and thoughts but make sure to listen to his ideas first.

A good way to approach things is to express positive things you would like around his technology usage. For example, you might want to ensure there are “screen-free” family times, such as mealtimes, or you might want a wind-down from screens in the evening to ensure a better night’s sleep, or you might want to see homework done first before recreational screen time.

Finally, you might want to set some goals that are nothing to do with screens, such as around physical activities. For example, encouraging him to keep up his badminton or walking together as a family, etc.

Address other stresses in your child
Make sure to listen out for the other stresses in your son’s life and take steps to address these. Growing up as a teenager is hard enough and autistic teenagers can face extra challenges. Listen carefully to how he is getting on in school and keep in contact with his school about his progress. With a diagnosis of autism he is entitled to extra supports from the school, so it worth reviewing this with the school.

You can also support him to find new outlets and supports that might benefit him, whether this is taking up new interests that align with his passions or more formal support groups or counselling. Consider also contacting the child and family support programme run by They provide a helpline for parents and also groups for teenagers and young people.

John Sharry is founder of the Parents Plus Charity and an adjunct professor at the School of Psychology, University College Dublin. This parenting Q&A was originally published in the Irish Times in September 2023. John writes in the Irish Times Newspaper on Tuesdays. His website is