Peter Byrne/AP

Digital media erodes social skills in children

Students kept from using screen-based technology for five days showed improvement in recognizing emotion, study says

The increasing use of digital and screen-based media may be impairing children’s ability to develop social skills, as they have less opportunity for face-to-face interaction, according to a new study. With digital media use beginning at earlier ages, researchers say it is imperative to understand the effects of such engagement.

“Many people are looking at the benefits of digital media in education, and not many are looking at the costs,” Patricia Greenfield, a psychology professor at University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) and senior author of the study, said in a press release. “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.”

The study will be published in the October edition of Computers in Human Behavior and is already available online.

For the report, UCLA scientists observed two groups of sixth graders who lived together in a nature camp for five days — one of the groups was told to leave their technology behind.

Both groups were evaluated at the beginning and end of the camp for their ability to recognize emotions in other people’s faces. They were shown photos of faces that were happy, sad, angry, or scared, and tasked with identifying the emotion. They also watched videos of people interacting with each other and had to identify whether the person seemed confident and excited, sad, or anxious.

After just days without using any digital media, researchers said they saw a significant improvement in the youth’s ability to recognize nonverbal emotions. The same improvement was not observed for the control group that continued to use screen-based technology throughout the experiment, according to the study.

In face-to-face communication, information is conveyed by such behaviors as facial expression, eye contact, tone of voice, and body language. The ability to pick up on those cues is important for developing social skills and better relationships with their peers, the study said, adding that young children who can’t see another’s face or body are less quick to pick up emotional signals.

“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, a senior researcher with UCLA’s Children’s Digital Media Center, said in the release. “If you’re not practicing face-to-face communication, you could be losing important social skills.”

For several millennia, humans have used face-to-face interaction for learning social skills and communication. But in the 21stcentury, mobile, Internet and other digital media have increasingly replaced that type of contact. Psychologists have become increasingly aware of societal changes resulting from increased use of digital media, which they say can even go so far as to become an addiction and change the way our brains function.

The amount of time spent away from screens during playtime decreased by one-fifth from 1997-2003, a study cited in the report said. Media exposure is beginning at increasingly early ages and consumes the majority of leisure time for most youth, researchers said. Students in the study said that they text, play video games, or watch television for about four and a half hours every day on average.

Researchers said the improvements observed in the group that was not allowed to use screen-based media was significant given that it happened only after five days.

“We’ve shown a model of what face-to-face interaction can do,” Greenfield said. Uhls echoed that, saying, “We are social creatures. We need device-free time.”

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