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Electronic devices impacting kids’ social skills reports UCLA study

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Electronic devices are extremely popular with young people these days. Many log countless hours on IPads, smartphones, and other devices. A new study by researchers at UCLA’s Children’s Digital Media Center (CDMC), Los Angeles has found that children’s social skills may be deteriorating as they spend large amounts of time using digital media. The study is currently available online in the journal Computers in Human Behavior and will be published in the October print edition of the journal.

The investigators found that sixth-graders who abstained for five days from a smartphone, television, or other digital screen performed significantly better at reading human emotions than sixth-graders from the same school who continued to spend hours each day using their electronic devices. “Many people are looking at the benefits of digital media in education, and not many are looking at the costs,” explained senior author Patricia Greenfield, PhD, a distinguished professor of psychology at UCLA. She added, “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.”

For the study, the researchers evaluated two groups of sixth-graders from a Southern California public school: 51 who lived together for five days at the Pali Institute, a nature and science camp 70 miles east of LA, and 54 others from the same school. (The latter group of 54 would attend the camp later, after the study was conducted.) The camp prohibited the use of electronic devices by students. For the first few days, many students found the policy to be challenging; however, according to camp counselors, most adapted quickly.

At the beginning and end of the study, both groups of students were evaluated for their ability to recognize other individual’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. In addition, they viewed 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 and the other is anxious. In another scene, one student is saddened after being excluded from a conversation.

Compared to students who continued to use their electronic devices, 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. The investigators recorded how many errors the students made when attempting to identify the emotions in the photos and videos. For example, when analyzing the photos, the children at the camp made an average of 9.41 errors at the end of the study, compared to 14.02 at the beginning. The students who did not attend the camp recorded a significantly smaller change. For the videos, the students who went to camp improved significantly; however, the scores of the students who did not attend camp showed no change. The findings were similar for boys and girls.

The researchers found that the degree of improvement was especially evident in the students’ understanding of the videos. Previous studies by other researchers reported that children who spent several hours a day playing violent video games tended to exhibit more aggressive behavior after only a few days. The behavioral change in those studies was significant; however, the degree of the improvement in children’s ability to read emotions in the UCLA research was significantly greater.

The researchers did not note some gender differences in the change in social skills during the study period. “You can’t learn nonverbal emotional cues from a screen in the way you can learn it from face-to-face communication,” explained lead author Yalda Uhls, PhD, a senior researcher with the UCLA’s Children’s Digital Media Center, Los Angeles. She added, “If you’re not practicing face-to-face communication, you could be losing important social skills.”

The study participants reported that they text, watch television, and play 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, explained Dr. Uhls, who also is the Southern California regional director of Common Sense Media, a national nonprofit organization.

Dr. Greenfield, who is the director of the CDMC, notes that the results are significant because they occurred after only five days. She explained that the implications of the research are that people need more face-to-face interaction, and that even when individuals use digital media for social interaction, they are spending less time developing social skills and learning to read nonverbal cues. She said, “We’ve shown a model of what more face-to-face interaction can do. Social interaction is needed to develop skills in understanding the emotions of other people.” Dr. Uhls added that emoticons are a poor substitute for face-to-face communication: “We are social creatures. We need device-free time.”