|Children are less empathetic than a generation ago.|
Photo: MBI / ALAMY
Smartphones making children borderline autistic, warns expert
Young children today are less able to read human emotions than pupils four decades ago, an expert has said
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.
However, experts have said children’s lack of ability to read emotions may be down to cultural or language barriers and not just technology.
Mr McGilchrist said he’d heard from teachers who said they now have to explain to their pupils how to make sense of the human face more than a few years ago.
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.”
The author of The Master and his Emissary, which explored the functions of the left and right hemispheres of the brain, added that there is evidence youngsters are “less empathic” than four decades ago.
He pointed to research done in the US within the last decade that shows a decrease in empathy among college students and at the same time a rise in narcissism.
He said “plausible” theories as to why children are less empathic are to do with the disruptive effects of technology in the family unit.
Dr McGilchrist 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. 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 also said: “Small children are not getting the same individual face-to-face attention as before and when they are at home with the family, the family is multi-tasking and the child is in front of the TV or an iPad screen which is quite worrying.”
“It is hardly surprising that we are not as good as reading human faces and interacting with human beings if we are engaging with the virtual world.”
However, others have said the reasons behind an apparent lack of empathy are complex. Dr Nadja Reissland, a psychologist and senior lecturer at Durham University, said saying children are less able to read human emotion was “a big statement”.
She added: “It could be true but we need to know the background of these children. They might not want to talk about their emotions or might not be used to. They might also come from different cultures where they are normally not supposed to show emotions or English may not be their first language.”