Most of us take for granted our ability to read emotions, such as anger or happiness, on the faces of others. But most adults came of age before computer screens became ubiquitous.
Researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles, wondered if all that screen time might be affecting children’s ability to read emotions in others. To find out, they took advantage of a rustic science-education program, 70 miles east of L.A., which doesn’t permit students to use electronic devices.
That let the scientists assess two groups of about 50 sixth-graders, each from the same public school. One group was at the program for five days, while the other hadn’t yet attended. Both groups were tested on Monday and then again on Friday for their ability to detect emotions from people’s faces. In two tests, each given twice, the pupils looked at 48 still photos and 10 videos scrubbed of verbal content.
After five days without electronics, the campers had pulled way ahead in reading faces. The camp group reduced its errors on the still-photo test by nearly twice as much as did the control group. (That the control group had any reduction at all was likely due to the practice offered by the first test, the scientists said.) On the video test, the campers improved by nearly 20% while the non-campers showed no change.
Overall, the children owned up to spending an average of 4.5 hours a day texting, watching TV and playing videogames. And the mix of screen time—TV versus phones, for instance—made no difference to the results. Nor did gender.
The findings suggest that children need more face time—and less screen time—to sharpen their social skills. But based on the results after just five screen-free days, improvement appears to be rapid.
“Five Days at Outdoor Education Camp Without Screens Improves Preteen Skills With Nonverbal Emotion Cues,” Yalda T. Uhls and Patricia M. Greenfield et al., Computers in Human Behavior (online Aug. 15)