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Use of digital devices affects ability of children to read human emotion

Laptops, other devices, capture too much of childrens' time
Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images

A new study of sixth-graders who went without any kind of exposure to digital media for five days found them to be far superior at reading human emotions than other sixth-graders who had continuous exposure to digital media during the same time period, a new study indicates.

Researchers evaluated 51 students who lived together for five days at a science and nature camp in California that didn’t allow any digital media; another 54 students did not attend camp, but went to the same school as the other students. Only the students at the school had access to their electronic devices such as television, phones, and computers.

UCLA scientists found that sixth-graders who went five days with no access to mobile phones, television or other digital device were superior at reading human emotions than their peers at school.

“Many people are looking at the benefits of digital media in education, and not many are looking at the costs,” says Patricia Greenfield, a distinguished professor of psychology in the UCLA College and senior author of the study, in a press release issued by the university. “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 start of the study, researchers evaluated both groups of students for their ability to recognize other people’s emotions in photos and videos by looking at 48 pictures of happy, sad, angry, or scared faces. They were asked to identify the feelings of the people in the pictures. Students from the camp made 9.41 errors at the end of the study, which was a decrease from 14.02 at the beginning of the study. The students who continued at school had a much smaller change.

With the videos, students from camp had substantial improvements at reading emotions compared to students who attended school, who had no change in results. There were no differences in findings between male and female students.

“You can’t learn nonverbal emotional cues from a screen in the way you can learn it from face-to-face communication,” says lead author Yalda Uhls, a senior researcher with the UCLA’s Children’s Digital Media Center. “If you’re not practicing face-to-face communication, you could be losing important social skills.”

Participants reported that they texted, watched television, and played video games for an average of four-and-a-half hours on a typical school day. Some surveys have found that the figure is even higher nationally, said Uhls, who also is the Southern California regional director of Common Sense Media, a national nonprofit organization.

Greenfield, director of the CDMC, says results of the research indicate that people need more face-to-face interaction, and that digital media keeps students from developing necessary social skills.

“We’ve shown a model of what more face-to-face interaction can do,” Greenfield says. “Social interaction is needed to develop skills in understanding the emotions of other people.”

Uhls adds that digital devices cannot be used as a substitute for actual human interaction. “We are social creatures. We need device-free time.”

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