Virtual Autism - technology changing our ability to read each other

BY lifeworkswhen

‘The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.’

 – George Bernard Shaw

Now before you read on, this isn’t a ‘let’s hate Facebook’ monologue at all.

My own belief is that everything, when balanced, including social media, is good for us. For my generation, we are still safe from the intrusion of technology on our human skills. For the rest of you, well, don’t say you haven’t been warned. For all the social media and Facebook addicts out there, the data is coming in and it is not good news.

We are starting to get the results from research completed on our obsession with social media. There is a new problem diagnosed and it has a name – VIRTUAL AUTISM. Coined from research in France on autistic disorders and the impact of social media on babies and toddlers, the term virtual autism applies to the robbing of toddlers of normal social development by handing these new impressionable human beings, screens to occupy them. Screens instead of human interaction and learning. Screens instead of emotional facial reading and modelling. Screens instead of conversation, developing an understanding of eye contact, facial expression and tone of voice. The bad news is that introducing screens excessively is diminishing the next generation of toddler’s ability to read social language and understand facial and body language.

The good news is the solution is to take the screens off them and replace it with parental and carer interactions and games (think peek-a-boo). This teaches our toddlers and babies how to read our emotions through seeing our faces and interpreting the facial expressions. Okay, there may be a tantrum or ten, but change will always be a challenge. Even if you are five.

The thing is, if you don’t get on to it now, it doesn’t stop there. Once we introduce screens as a natural part of our social and interpersonal evolution, it becomes normalised for all interactions. Ending in an emerging generational problem of underdeveloped social skills.

When I told my daughter this, she was quick to defend her cohort of Facebook users as having good social skills. ‘We do communicate in person,’ she pouted at me. I wanted to, (but selected not to), remind my daughter her ‘horrible’ mother refused to allow Facebook or social media or iPhone until she was 15. Cruel, I know. But the method to my madness. The result is she does have very good communication skills. She reads facial and body language exceptionally well and is a great negotiator in conflict. (Yes, alright, sometimes having a psychologist as a parent can help, not hinder!). The point is, her social brain was allowed to develop naturally without the overload of ‘social screen interpersonal replacement,’ that can be detrimental to learning and using facial, body and language skills.  And she survived, begrudgingly of course, without a screen in her hand 24/365.

I am sure anyone under 21 will be equally offended by this article, as my daughter was in that moment. But hold on a minute. Before you dismiss what I’m saying, stay with me. Facebook and social media (including online gaming) have positive outcomes for our social self in terms of increased interactions and bonding. They also provide vital social access for isolated, disabled or other individuals who find real-life social activities difficult or overwhelming. But like anything that stimulates the brain, too much of a good thing creates problems and increases dependency.

New research by the University of the Sunshine Coast, comparing 200 individuals born into a world obsessed with social media (think particularly Facebook and include Snapchat or Instagram ) against those who grew up without social media, has shed disturbing light on the possible loss of a generation of some vital human skills.

The results indicated that those who spend a large amount of time on social media, particularly Facebook, were exhibiting traits similar to people with Autistic Spectrum Disorder. This is serious. Most notably the significantly important skill slowly vanishing from our abilities was the capacity to read facial expressions and emotions, accurately. Anyone starting to panic yet? I mean, how can we lose the art of basic communication so easily?

Now, if you’ve met me you’d know this has been a topic of growing concern with under 21-year-olds for some time. A large percentage of my clients seeking psychological support has focused on increasing anxiety (social) and depression (isolation). Most, but not all, of the issues of anxiety are centred on a growing generational inability to accurately read social cues, understand social language and interpret social body and facial language in real life. Poor skills in this area contribute to feeling isolated, inadequate and devalued.

What is left is misunderstanding, miscuing and misinterpretation. In turn, this leads to social confusion, unrealistic and wrongly applied grudges, unresolved conflict due to inability to read situations effectively and increased arguments based on poor communication.  The inability to understand what went wrong and have the skills for successful repairing interpersonal problems is a massive issue, in as far as being an effective and happy human being.

In my book, Life Works When – A story of piecing happiness together for a successful life, the piece of happiness called Belonging is a major part of finding happiness. Any reduction in our ability to communicate effectively with each other impacts on our sense of belonging and desire to belong. Unresolved this social fallout impacts our social, psychological and physical well being. Our mental health suffers, depression creeps in and social isolation develops.

Dr Rachael Sharman, a senior psychology lecturer at USC, said in a recent interview, she believes our brains are not ready to ‘deal with the dramatic shift in technology’. Yet, technology is not going to slip into neutral gear while we all catch up. We are ill prepared to understand what serious social media use will have on us long term, on the interpersonal interactions and behaviour of the next generation. What we know now is the ability to read facial expressions and emotions, accurately, is one human skill we are forfeiting for screen dependency. And these dying skills are connected to our levels of social anxiety and depression.

Is it time we introduce Human Skills into our education curriculum to balance the social eradication of being able to read each other’s expressions and emotions?

Are we becoming too literal as our skills for the abstract and the use of the creative places of our minds are replaced by text and twitter speak?

What is the future impact of a generation of people more at ease communicating through a screen than in person?

What correlation does the diminishing of real-life human skills have on our mental health?

Where we lose the ability to read each other in social settings with accuracy, we lose the art of compassion, communication, conflict resolution and creative thinking.

So what can we do? Like with the toddlers, the solution is relatively easy.

  • Limit your screen time to balance with real interpersonal interactions.
  • Make sure your social skills are updated and accurate.
  • Re-train in your human skills.
  • Call instead of text, to practice your communication ability in real time.
  • Avoid or seriously limit giving any children under 10 screens as a substitute for other natural interactions or learning.
  • Say no to screens, you are the adult, not the child, so the authority to make the choice.
  • Model effective social skills, if you don’t know how to seek advice and training.
  • Check your own obsession with your social media.
  • Don’t assume everyone understands facial, body and language cues, including yourself.
  • Be strong enough to cope with the tantrum to children and adolescents who demand excessive screens and social media use.
  • Seek help if you struggle to implement any of these.

If you want to know if your screen time is excessive and impacting on your wellbeing, subscribe to my email and you can complete the screen checklist and find out.

Until then, turn off and tune in to the real world for a little while.

The benefits will be lifelong.