Excess screen time leads to autism-like traits, including poorer quality friendships and fewer social skills

Aoife Kissane, 14, Eva van Raak-Edwardson, 14, Roisin Kissane, 12, and Niamh Kissane, 9, get screen time restrictions. Picture: Adam Head


CHILDREN who spend too much time in front of screens and on social media risk developing autism-like traits, Queensland research has found.

A Sunshine Coast University (SCU) study found people who spent the most time in front of a screen browsing Facebook exhibited some of the traits of autism spectrum disorder (ASD), including an inability to read facial emotions.

They also had poorer quality friendships and fewer social skills, which are traits associated with ASD. Experts suggested excessive screen time was capable of altering developing brains.

SCU psychology lecturer Rachael Sharman said the study, which compared people who grew up without Facebook with those for whom the social media site had always been part of their lives, had found “stark differences” in people’s ability to understand facial emotions.

“We found very clear links between the longer you were on (Facebook), and some of the different motivations for being on there, lead to poorer emotion recognition,” she said.

Dr Sharman said the emotional recognition impairment could have a range of consequences later in life, such as not understanding when someone was lying and an inability to tolerate differences of opinion.

She said the study of about 200 people, conducted with psychology honours student Tharen Kander, found the traits were most pronounced in people who used Facebook to find friends and those who wanted to “escape reality”.

National guidelines recommend children aged between five and 17 years spend less than two hours a day in front of a screen.

Young children should see no screens.

Edith Cowan University parenting expert Bronwyn Harman said too much screen time could have a range of adverse consequences for children, including cutting into play time which helped teach them valuable life skills.

“Unstructured play is important to all children’s development on social levels, physical, emotional, all sorts of levels,” she said.

“It also teaches them things like how to share and turn taking and other social cues like that we take for granted.”

Nature Play Program Manager Hyahno Moser said the solution was easy: children needed to spend more time outdoors.

“We have to include (technology) in our world and our kids will need to know how to use it to be functioning members of society, but they need a bit more balance,” he said.

Brisbane mother-of-three Vivianne Townsend said balance was key when it came to screen time.

“My kids all use screens, however, I’ve not had to enforce really strict rules around it,” she said.

“I don’t mind them using screens, as long as they are still being active, social and helpful around the house.”

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