Credit: eurobanks |


Earlier, I discussed how social media can empty relationships of significance (here). Heck, if we aren’t careful, we adults could be receiving computer-generated “posts” from a deceased cousin, in which case we have to know something is wrong.

And we noted in passing that in some cases, it might be wise to rename the smartphone the “Dumbphone,” based on a documented reduction in users’ problem-solving abilities, cue lazy thinking.

Now British psychiatrist Iain McGilchrist has warned that smartphones risk making children borderline autistic:

Children struggle to read emotions and are less empathetic than a generation ago because they spend too much time using tablets and smartphones, a leading psychiatrist has warned. Iain McGilchrist said children as young as five were less able to read facial expressions because of too much interaction with technology.

He added that he had evidence that more pupils were displaying borderline “autistic” behaviour. Dr McGilchrist, a former Oxford literary scholar who retrained in medicine, said he had heard of increasing numbers of teachers who had to explain to their pupils how to make sense of human faces.

Dr McGilchrist said he has been contacted by teachers of five to seven year olds who have estimated that roughly a third of their pupils find it difficult to keep attention, read faces.

In an interview with the Telegraph, he said: “These teachers have been teaching for 30 years and had found only a couple of people not able to do these simple tasks. People are increasingly finding it difficult to communicate at an emotional level in what appears to be features of autism.”

His argument is,

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. 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. More.

His observations are worth considering. Dealing with people day after day in person is quite a different and more informative experience than living online, where many contacts are simply an avatar or a plausible fake, offering no reliable sensory cues. There is a genuine risk that people immersed in online life might find their social cues, skills, and smarts for offline life (aka real life) deteriorating.

It won’t get better when these children enter their teen years. As neuroscientist Zheng Wang of Ohio State University emphasizes, teenage brains cannot tolerate very much distraction:

When asked about multitasking, most teens say they believe they are good at it and that it allows them to accomplish more. On the other hand, studies show that multitasking actually interferes with learning in adolescents and that it takes anywhere between 25 per cent and 400 per cent longer for a teenager to complete his or her homework if multitasking is involved. So why do teens profess that multitasking helps them? It may be because multitasking makes them feel emotionally satisfied.… “This is worrisome because students begin to feel like they need to have the TV on or they need to continually check their text massages or computer while they do their homework. It’s not helping them, but they get an emotional reward that keeps them doing it.”

Similarly, in The Teenage Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Survival Guide to Raising Adolescents and Young Adults, Frances E. Jensen and Amy Ellis Nutt observe,

The connectivity of the brain slowly moves from the back of the brain to the front. The very last places to “connect” are the frontal lobes. In fact, the teen brain is only about 80 per cent of the way to maturity. That 20 per cent gap, where the wiring is thinnest, is crucial and goes a long way toward explaining why teenagers behave in such puzzling ways – their mood swings, irritability, impulsiveness and explosiveness; their inability to focus, to follow through, and to connect with adults; and their temptations to use drugs and alcohol and to engage in other risky behaviour.

And, one might add, the temptation to live on line, obsessing over celebs and their astronomical numbers of possibly fake friends created by click farms. Or maybe endure cyberbullying in a vain effort to find acceptance.

Here’s a thought: If we don’t necessarily think that a person is mature enough to drive a car or fly a plane, or buy alcohol, why do we think that same person can handle just any level of immersive technology? Surely not just because he or she likes or wants it.

This is another example of why teenagers need adults, as in, people who can just tell them, this is not real. This is not life. This is not where it is at. Just because someone spent $10 million trying to convince you does not make it so.


Denyse O’Leary is a Canadian journalist, author, and blogger.

Hat tip: Stephanie West Allen at Brains on Purpose

Denyse O’Leary is an author, journalist, and blogger who has mainly written popular science and social science. Fellow Canadian Marshall McLuhan’s description of electronic media as a global village...