Children May Be Losing Their Ability To Read Emotions, But There's A Fix

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Brooke Auchincloss via Getty Images
Brooke Auchincloss via Getty Images

Sure, your child can read emoticons. But a provocative new study suggests that all that screen time is making it hard for children to interpret real-life emotions. It shows that the more kids use digital media, the more their social skills decline.

Decreased sensitivity to emotional cues — losing the ability to understand the emotions of other people — is one of the costs" of heavy use of cell phones and computers, study co-author Dr. Patricia Greenfield, a psychology professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, said in a written statement.

But the study suggests a possible fix: just a few days of unplugging and having more face-to-face interactions can boost social skills, the researchers said.

For their study, the researchers administered tests to two groups of sixth-graders. One group included 51 sixth-graders who were attending a five-day nature camp that forbids the use of electronic devices. The other group included 54 sixth-graders who were not attending the camp and, therefore, allowed to use their devices.

The tests -- which were given both before and after the five-day period -- required the kids to identify the emotions portrayed in photos of facial expressions and in videos of actors acting out dramatic scenes.

What did the researchers find?

Over the five-day period, the children who attended camp proved to be much better than the other kids at reading facial expressions. In fact, the kids in the camp group went from making an average of 14 errors in the photo tests before camp to an average of nine errors after camp. For the video test, the campers went from getting an average of 26 percent of the emotions correct to getting 31 percent correct, the Los Angeles Times reported.

How do the researchers know that it was time away from electronic devices that improved the campers' social skills -- and not the kids' participation in camp activities and time outdoors?

"We can't be certain it was the time away from their electronic devices and state that as a limitation of the study," study co-author Yalda Uhls, a senior researcher with the UCLA’s Children’s Digital Media Center, told The Huffington Post in an email. "However, we do believe that the time away from devices meant they [the campers] had more time face-to-face and that this most likely contributed to their improvement... The study seemed to underscore many parent's intuitions."

Uhls added that, in light of the finding, parents of technology-obsessed preteens might want to get their kids to cut back on their device time and to make sure everyone in the family spends enough time unplugged.

The study was published online in the journal Computers in Human Behavior on August 15, 2014.

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