Researchers at the University of California in Los Angeles recently took a look into how too much screen time is affecting young people’s social skills. UCLA scientists studied two groups of sixth-graders from the same school: one group didn’t have any screen time for the duration of five days; while the other group spent their usual time looking at smartphones, TVs and other screens.
What was revealed? The study reported that the group of sixth-graders without any screen time did a better job reading human emotions.
Many parents are typically concerned that too much screen time jeopardizes their children’s physical development. This includes time in front of the TV or playing video games. This leads to obesity, poor eye sight, and even attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder (commonly known as ADHD). Some parents also believe that pop culture presented in the media overwhelms children’s thinking and imagination. Thus, limiting media exposure supports the development of intellectual curiosity. Certain rearing methods, such as the Waldorf philosophy, recommend that younger children have very little to no media exposure because its use is out of harmony with children’s developmental needs.
The Indirect Costs of Too Much Screen Time
The new study our of UCLA further questions if young people are losing their ability to read the emotional cues given off by others as face-to-face social interaction lessens in favor of social media, facebooking and texting, and as screen time increases. As educators increase the integration of technology into schools and as parents allow for countless hours of media entertainment, are they neglecting to assess all the costs?
“Many people are looking at the benefits of digital media in education, and not many are looking at the costs. 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.” ~ Patricia Greenfield, professor of psychology in the UCLA College and senior author of the study
Social Interactions and Children’s Development
In the study conducted by Dr. Greenfield, 51 students from a Southern California public school attended five days at a nature and science camp that does not permit the use of electronic devices. Although some students found this difficult at first, camp counselors stated that most children adapted quickly. At the start and at the end of the study, the sixth-graders were given an assessment of how accurately they could identify feelings of people’s emotions in pictures and videos. The characters in the pictures showed a range of emotions, from happy to angry, to sad and scared. In the videos, characters played out scenes where kids taking tests were confident and excited, while others were anxious, and other scenes showed kids reacting to different social situations.
The group that stayed at the camp significantly improved their ability to read emotions by assessing facial expression and non-verbal cues. This was compared to another group of 54 students from the same grade and school who were given the same tests, both at the start of the study and after five days, but this group continued to use media devices during this time. Here are some of the findings:
Researchers tracked how many errors the students made when attempting to identify the emotions in the photos and videos. When analyzing the photos, for example, those at the camp made an average of 9.41 errors at the end of the study, down from 14.02 at the beginning. The students who didn’t attend the camp recorded a significantly smaller change. For the videos, the students who went to camp improved significantly, while the scores of the students who did not attend camp showed no change. The findings applied equally to both boys and girls. (source)
The students that participated in the study reported that, during a typical school day, they spend about 4 ½ hours on average in front of a screen – be it texting, watching television or playing video games. This is slightly lower than the US national average of 7 ½ hours of children’s daily media exposure, as reported in a survey conducted by the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation in early 2010. (source)
The implications of this study are clear: children need face-to-face social interaction if they are to develop skills needed to understand how other people feel.
With the rapidly increasing use of media by children and families in school, at work and at home (for example, children’s daily media exposure rose 2 ¼ hours from 2004 to 2009 as per the Kaiser survey), we are faced with a challenge of ensuring our children receive much needed face-to-face time with others. Device-free time will help kids cultivate social skills and advance their abilities to read non-verbal cues such as body language and facial expressions.
There are many emotions that cannot be communicated using emoticons and texts. These are the emotions that make us human.
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