Smartphones are making children borderline autistic, says psychiatrist

A leading psychiatrist has said that technology has made children less empathetic and less able to read emotions

Constant use of technology such as smartphones is making today's children display borderline "autistic" behaviour, psychiatrist Iain McGilchrist has warned.

The former Oxford literature teacher, who retrained as a doctor, said that children as young as five are becoming increasingly unable to read facial expressions or show empathy, compared to children in previous generations

He said he had heard of increasing numbers of teachers who have had to tell their pupils what different facial expressions mean.

He added that he had spoken to some teachers who now find that around a third of their pupils have problems with maintaining attention or understanding others' emotions or facial expressions - a problem which he says is due to the increasing presence of technology in childrens' lives

Speaking to The Telegraph, he said: "Children spend more time engaging with machines and with virtual reality than they used to in the past, where they don't have to face the consequences of real life."

McGilchrist said that spend so much time looking at screens, rather than playing with each other, that their social skills have suffered

"In virtual environments they don't have to interpret the subtle cues of real-life environments like when they are playing with children in the woods."

He added that changing family roles have meant that children are often left in front of a TV or tablet screen while parents multi-task, in a development he called "quite worrying".

However, other experts say the issue is more complex. Dr Nadja Reissland, a psychologist from Durham University, said McGilchrist's basic claim that children are less able to read emotions than in the past was "a big statement".

She added that a deeper understanding of these childrens' backgrounds, taking into consideration that they may be unwilling to talk about their emotions, or that they might be from different cultures, could explain the change.

Autism spectrum disorders can have many characteristics, but problems with social development differentiate them from other disorders. Many autistic people lack the intuition in social situations that most people have naturally, meaning they often have problems recognising facial expressions or understanding the emotions of others.