Sixth-graders who turned off the TV and stepped away from other screens for a few days were much better at reading other people's emotions than those engaged with media during that same time, according to a new study published in Computers in Human Behavior.
Background material provided by the University of California Los Angeles, which conducted the psychological study, noted that "children's social skills may be declining as they have less time for face-to-face interaction due to their increased use of digital media."
"Many people are looking at the benefits of digital media in education, and not many are looking at the costs," said Patricia Greenfield, professor of psychology at UCLA and the study's senior author, in a written statement. "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."
Fifty-one preteens spent five days at an overnight camp that banned electronic devices, including computers, TV and cellphones. To see the impact of doing without screen time, the researchers compared them against students from their school who used media the same as usual. The latter group of 54 students later attended the same nature and science camp, the Pali Institute.
Each group took tests before the camp and after that asked them to determine from photographs or videos with no sound what the emotional state was of the person being shown.
They found that "after five days interacting face-to-face without the use of any screen-based media, preteens' recognition of nonverbal emotion cues improved significantly more than that of the control group for both facial expressions and videotaped scenes," the study said.
Wrote Time magazine's Belinda Luscombe: "Both sets of students were given photos of people expressing emotions — sadness, anger, joy, anxiety and so on, before the camp and after the camp. Both sets of students were also shown video of people interacting and displaying emotions. The students who had been to camp got much better at discerning how the people in the photos and the videos were feeling after that five-day period. They scored much higher at recognizing non-verbal emotional cues (facial expressions, body language, gestures) than they had before the camp, while the scores of the students who had not been deprived of screens did not change at all."
"You can't learn nonverbal emotional cues from a screen in the way you can learn it from face-to-face communication," lead author Yalda Uhls noted in the background material. Uhls is a senior researcher from UCLA's Children's Digital Media Center. "If you're not practicing face-to-face communication, you could be losing important social skills."
The study noted that the students on average said they text, watch TV or play video games for about 4.5 hours on a typical school day.
The researchers said the study points to the need for youths to have "device-free time."
They're not the first to suggest there's such a thing as too-much when it comes to screen time. The Mayo Clinic, for example, notes that excessive screen time has been linked to obesity, irregular sleep, behavior problems, impaired academic performance, violence and fewer hours for creative, active play.
The American Academy of Pediatrics says children 2 and younger should have zero screen time and those older should have no more than a couple of hours a day. An academy survey found a strong relationship between how much TV children watch and what they see their parents consume in terms of television. The parents surveyed averaged four hours of TV a day.
The academy has also issued new guidelines asking parents to read consistently to their children — even infants.
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