A new study found that sixth-grade students who went five days without looking at a smartphone, television, or other digital screen did substantially better at reading human emotions than students from the same school who continued to spend hours each day looking at their electronic devices.
“Many people are looking at the benefits of digital media in education, and not many are looking at the costs,” said Dr. Patricia Greenfield, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) and senior author of the study.
“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, psychologists studied two sets of sixth-graders from a Southern California public school — 51 who lived for five days at the Pali Institute, a nature and science camp about 70 miles east of Los Angeles, and 54 others from the same school who attended the camp after the study was conducted.
The camp doesn’t allow students to use electronic devices — a policy that many students found to be challenging for the first couple of days, the researchers report. Most adapted quickly, however, according to camp counselors.
Both groups of students were evaluated at the beginning and the end of the study for their ability to recognize other people’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.
They also watched 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, the other is anxious. In another scene, one student is saddened after being excluded from a conversation.
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, compared with the students who continued to use their media devices, the researchers found.
The researchers also 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, according to the scientists. The students who didn’t attend the camp recorded a significantly smaller change, the researchers said.
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, according to the researchers. The findings applied equally to both boys and girls.
“You can’t learn nonverbal emotional cues from a screen in the way you can learn it from face-to-face communication,” said lead author Yalda Uhls, Ph.D., a senior researcher with the UCLA’s Children’s Digital Media Center, Los Angeles.
“If you’re not practicing face-to-face communication, you could be losing important social skills.”
Students participating in the study 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,” said Uhls, who also is the Southern California regional director of Common Sense Media, a national nonprofit organization.
Greenfield said she considers the results significant, given that they occurred after only five days.
She added that the implications of the study’s findings are that people need more face-to-face interaction.
“We’ve shown a model of what more face-to-face interaction can do,” Greenfield said. “Social interaction is needed to develop skills in understanding the emotions of other people.”
“We are social creatures,” Uhls added. “We need device-free time.”
The study was published in Computers in Human Behavior.