Children Facebook virtual autism
Spending too much time browsing Facebook and Twitter could lead to traits of 'virtual autism'. Getty Images

Spending too much time using Facebook could cause users to show signs of 'virtual autism' that has similar personality traits to those on the disorder spectrum, according to a study.

Psychologists at the University of the Sunshine Coast in Australia found that users, particularly children, who plug themselves into social media, browsing the likes of Twitter and Facebook showed an inability to read facial emotions and had a poor friendships as a result.

The scientists compared 200 people who grew up without Facebook to younger generations who have had social media as an integral part of their daily life and studied their facial recognition skills.

It found the "the generation that grew up with Facebook were bad at recognising the correct emotion".

"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," Dr Rachael Sharman, senior psychology lecturer at USC, told ABC Radio Brisbane.

"In France they've labelled it virtual autism — the idea that if you're raising your child on screens, they're not having social interactions or learning basic social skills."

The fear is children in particular who are exposed screens are developing symptoms that are similar to some traits of that found on the autism spectrum. This could lead to the inability to detect whether people are lying or be able to tolerate difference in opinion of those they meet later in life.

The researchers also claim this could have a knock-on effect with friendships and that those who spent hours each day on social media "had fewer friends".

"If all they're getting is 2D screens and not enough human interaction and not enough motor skills development, you will end up with a problem," she claims.

The debate over how much screen time children should be exposed to is on-going with some scientists claiming technology can cause a disconnect to reality and discourage outdoor play. In Colorado, US, a law to ban smartphone sales to children under 13 has been proposed in an effort to curb adolescents becoming addicted to their gadgets.

On the other side of the argument over three quarters of parents in the UK have recently said they believe devices such as smartphones and tablets are helping their children develop problem-solving and motor skills.

The British intelligence agency, GCHQ, is also a strong advocate in giving children more time online as it claims a tech-savvy future generation could "save the country" as the UK is "desperately short of computer scientists" who have the cyber skills to defend from enemy threats.