Social Media & Autism

September 28, 2017

A new study has found that people who spend the most time browsing social media, especially Facebook, showed some traits similar to those of the autism spectrum disorder, including an inability to read facial emotions.

The study, by the University of the Sunshine Coast, compared 200 people who grew up without Facebook to those who have had social media part of their lives while growing up.

Senior psychology lecturer Dr Rachael Sharman said the findings, although not surprising, were worrying, according to a report on ABC radio.

“What we found is that the generation that grew up with Facebook were scoring in the autism level and were bad at recognising the correct emotion,” Dr Sharman told ABC Radio Brisbane’s Steve Austin.

“They also had fewer friends and they had poorer friendship quality, which lead onto poorer psychological well being.”

Similar research has been conducted in the United Kingdom and France with the same findings.

“In France they’ve labelled it virtual autism — the idea that if you’re raising your child on screens, they’re not having social interactions or learning basic social skills,” Dr Sharman said.

“What they’re saying is kids are developing symptoms that are similar to autism or on the autism spectrum.

“With this Australian sample we focused on facial recognition and the ability to look at a face and deduce the emotion.”

Dr Sharman conducted the study with psychology honours student Tharen Kander.

“Reading facial emotions is a learned behaviour,” Dr Sharman said.

“You have to have experience and exposure to it, and older people are often better at doing it as they are well practised.

“This is why we were interested to see to what extent this life on screen could be thwarting young people’s development socially.”

Dr Sharman said rapid changes in technology over the past 30 years had made it difficult for our brains to keep up.

“Our brains aren’t equipped to deal with the dramatic shift in technology.

“Our brains are wired to different environments and we need to appreciate that a young person’s brain is being wired to the environment it’s finding itself in.

“If all they’re getting is 2D screens and not enough human interaction and not enough motor skills development, you will end up with a problem.”

Dr Sharman said parents needed to look for opportunities to get children outside and socialise with their peers.

“Parents do have to find ways,” she said.

“They need to have the fight over screen time.”

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