A small study from the University of California Los Angeles psychology department concludes absorption in digital media could be a roadblock in children's development of the ability to read emotions.
Researchers compared two groups of sixth graders (ages 11-12) and found one group performed significantly better at recognising emotions after five days with no digital media, not even television.
Researchers say this is cause for alarm, considering how digital media is rapidly seeping into nooks and crannies of everyday life.
"Many people are looking at the benefits of digital media in education, and not many are looking at the costs," says Patricia Greenfield, 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."
In the study, researchers worked with a total of 105 sixth graders from a Southern California public school, about half of whom spent five days at a nature and science camp that strictly forbids digital media.
All 105 children were tested before and after half of them went off to nature camp at the Pali Institute. They were asked to analyse 48 photographs, declaring whether the emotions expressed were happy, sad, angry or frightened.
Additionally, they were shown videos of acted scenarios that evoked simple emotions and were asked to describe what was happening.
For example, one scenario portrays students taking a test in school and two students express their reactions after having submitted it: One is worried about how he performed, the other is confident in his work.
Another scene portrays a student feeling saddened after being excluded from his peers' social interactions.
Fresh from nature camp, children performed much better when tested on reading non-verbal cues to emotion, paring their average down to 9.41 errors, which was a significant improvement on their pre-camp average of 14.02.
Meanwhile, the children who had not been to camp made significantly less progress, according to researchers, who report that findings apply equally to 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," says lead author Yalda Uhls. "If you're not practicing face-to-face communication, you could be losing important social skills."
Study participants self-reported their time spent texting, watching television and using other forms of digital media, which averaged at four and a half hours per school day, which is lower than surveys suggest the national average to be.
The study was published in the journal Computers in Human Behaviour. — AFP/Relaxnews 2014
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