A recent study published by the University of California, Los Angeles has found that increased time spent looking at electronic screens–such as phones, tablets and computers– could decrease a child’s ability to read facial expressions and determine emotions.
The study consisted of two groups of sixth graders; one group went to the Pali Institute–a camp with zero screen time available, the other continued on with their daily lives as usual. Five days! Students studied said they typically watch tv, text, play video games and use tablets for up to four and a half hours a day. Some surveys have even found that the national average is higher. The end result showed a differential in just five days without electronics. The sixth graders were delivering better responses to reading nonverbal cues.
“Many people are looking at the benefits of digital media in education, and not many are looking at the costs,” said Patricia Greenfield, psychology professor at UCLA and senior author of the study. “Decreased sensitivity to emotional cues — losing the ability to understand the emotions of other people — is one of the costs. The displacement of in-person social interaction by screen interaction seems to be reducing social skills.”
“You can’t learn nonverbal emotional cues from a screen in the way you can learn it from face-to-face communication,” said lead author Yalda Uhls, a senior researcher with the UCLA’s Children’s Digital Media Center, Los Angeles. “If you’re not practicing face-to-face communication, you could be losing important social skills.”
Uhls said that emoticons are a poor substitute for face-to-face communication: “We are social creatures. We need device-free time.”
» Uhls, Yalda. “Five days at outdoor education camp without screens improves preteen skills with nonverbal cues.” Science Direct. 2014.
» Walport, Stuart. “In our digital world, are young people losing the ability to read emotions?” UCLA News Room, Health & Behavior. 21 Aug 2014.
» Summers, Juana. “Kids and Screen Time: What does the research say?” NPR Education, Learning & Tech. 28 August 2014.