Researchers suggest children’s social skills are declining as they have less time for face-to-face interaction due to their increased use of digital media, according to a UCLA psychology study. Scientists found that sixth-graders who went five days without even glancing at a smartphone, television or other digital screen did substantially better at reading human emotions than sixth-graders from the same school who continued to spend hours each day looking at their electronic devices.
The study, published in the journal Computers in Human Behavior, studied two groups of sixth-graders from a Southern California public school. One group was sent to the Pali Institute, an outdoor education camp in Running Springs, Calif., where the kids had no access to electronic devices. For the other group, it was life as usual.
“Many people are looking at the benefits of digital media in education, and not many are looking at the costs,” said Patricia Greenfield, a distinguished professor of psychology in the UCLA College 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.”
At the beginning and end of the study, both groups of students were evaluated for their ability to recognize other people’s emotions in photos and videos. The students were shown 48 pictures of faces that were happy, sad, angry or scared, and asked to identify their feelings.
They also watched videos of actors interacting with one another and were instructed to describe the characters’ emotions. In one scene, students take a test and submit it to their teacher; one of the students is confident and excited, the other is anxious. In another scene, one student is saddened after being excluded from a conversation.
The children who had been at the camp improved significantly over the five days in their ability to read facial emotions and other nonverbal cues to emotion, compared with the students who continued to use their media devices.
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.”
If today’s young people don’t reduce their use of wireless mobile devices, they may suffer an “epidemic” of the disease in later life.
In a commentary for the journal Pediatrics, researchers at Boston University School of Medicine reviewed available types of interactive media and raised “important questions regarding their use as educational tools”.
The researchers said that though the adverse effects of television and video on very small children was well understood, society’s understanding of the impact of mobile devices on the pre-school brain has been outpaced by how much children are already using them.
The researchers warned that using a tablet or smartphone to divert a child’s attention could be detrimental to “their social-emotional development”.
“If these devices become the predominant method to calm and distract young children, will they be able to develop their own internal mechanisms of self-regulation?” the scientists asked.
Use of interactive screen time below three years of age could also impair a child’s development of the skills needed for maths and science, they found, although they also said some studies suggested benefits to toddlers’ use of mobile devices including in early literacy skills, or better academic engagement in students with autism.
Jenny Radesky, clinical instructor in developmental-behavioural pediatrics at Boston University School of Medicine, published her team’s findings. She urged parents to increase “direct human to human interaction” with their offspring.
Radesky encouraged more “unplugged” family interaction in general and suggested young children may benefit from “a designated family hour” of quality time spent with relatives — without any television and mobile devices being involved.
A Wake-Up Call For Educators
There’s a big takeaway for schools, Greenfield says.
“A lot of school systems are rushing to put iPads into the hands of students individually, and I don’t think they’ve thought about the [social] cost,” she explains. “This study should be, and we want it to be, a wake-up call to schools. They have to make sure their students are getting enough face-to-face social interaction. That might mean reducing screen time.”
The results of the UCLA study seem to line up with prior research, says Marjorie Hogan, a pediatrician at Hennepin County Medical Center in Minneapolis and a spokeswoman for the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP).
“Common sense tells me that if a child’s laying on his or her bed and texting friends instead of getting together and saying, ‘Hey, what’s up,’ that there’s a problem there,” she says. “I want people interacting … on a common-sense level, and an experiential level. It does concern [me].”
Hogan relates the UCLA study’s findings back to research on infants.
“When babies are babies, they’re learning about human interaction with face-to-face time and with speaking to parents and having things they say modeled back to them,” she says. “That need doesn’t go away.”
Exploring The Relationship Between Humans and Electronic Devices
Some international collaborative research on the topic has been conducted in Italy and the UK (e.g., Fortunati, Katz, & Riccini, 2003; Vincent & Fortunati, 2009), and in the U.S. exploring the relationship between humans and machines, especially with regard to the body, intimacy and emotion.
These research efforts have brought about work such as the Machines That Become Us perspective, which implies that “the technologies ‘become’ extensions and representative of the communicator.” Not will future technology extend human body and sensory systems into the public domain, but it will also be incorporated into the human body and become part of a means of expressing identity and emotions. This need many people have to always be connected has engendered a close attachment to their devices, emphasized by the mass adoption of mobile phones and tablet devices.
As a whole, more research will be directed to explore the intricately changing boundary between humans and electronic devices and the role emotions play in the dynamics. Furthermore, there will be a need to explore the gap between the research on social platforms with a special emphasis on mobile communication.
About the Author
Marco Torres is a research specialist, writer and consumer advocate for healthy lifestyles. He holds degrees in Public Health and Environmental Science and is a professional speaker on topics such as disease prevention, environmental toxins and health policy.
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