More Screen Time Means Fewer Social Skills

Putting down technology and interacting with peers for just 5 days significantly improved social skills among preteens.

Putting down technology and interacting with peers for just 5 days significantly improved social skills among preteens.

Spending too much time in front of television, computer, and smartphone screens may stunt students’ social skills, new research suggests.

In a recent study published online August 15, 2014, in Computers in Human Behavior, researchers from the University of California, Los Angeles, analyzed the effects that screen time and face-to-face communication have on preteens’ ability to read human emotions and nonverbal social cues.

For the study, a group of 6th graders from a public school in Southern California attended an outdoor, overnight educational camp for 5 days, during which time they did not have access to electronic devices, including television, computers, and phones.

While at camp, the students bunked with their peers in cabins, completed team-building exercises, and participated in other activities that increased their face-to-face social interactions. A control group of students from the same school attended regular classes and did not have any restrictions placed on their screen time. On an average weekday during the school year, both groups of students reported spending approximately 4.5 hours a day texting, watching TV, and playing videogames outside of school.

At the start and end of the camp week, all students were shown photographs of actors and asked to write down what emotion they portrayed. The students were also asked to decipher the emotional states of actors in videotaped scenes that did not have sound.

The researchers found that those who spent less time with technology and more time engaging with their peers face-to-face had significantly improved scores on reading facial emotions. The students who attended camp made an average of 14.02 errors on the photo recognition test before camp and 9.42 errors after camp, for a total reduction of 4.61 errors, while students in the control group saw an average reduction of 2.43 errors between the pre- and posttests.

Similar results were found for the video test, as children in the camp group identified 26% of emotions portrayed in video scenes correctly before attending camp and 31% correctly afterward. Scores for those in the control group did not improve over the week and remained at 28% correct for the pre- and posttest.

“While digital media provide many useful ways to communicate and learn, our study suggests that skills in reading human emotion may be diminished when children’s face-to-face interaction is displaced by technologically mediated communication,” the study authors wrote. “The results of this study should introduce a much-needed societal conversation about the costs and benefits of the enormous amount of time children spend with screens, both inside and outside the classroom.”