Study: Children’s social skills may be declining as digital media use rises (but I do have some doubts)

A quite alarming study, it seems, but I do have some doubts. To understand why, first read this excerpt from the press release:

The psychologists studied two sets of sixth-graders from a Southern California public school: 51 who lived together 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. (The group of 54 would attend the camp later, 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. Most adapted quickly, however, according to camp counselors.

At the beginning and end of the study, both groups of students were evaluated 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. (note by me, this sound a bit Mehrabian, doesn’t it 🙂 )

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.

Researchers 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. The students who didn’t attend the camp recorded a significantly smaller change. 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. 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, 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.”

So, I do have my thoughts about the approach. I understand why they chose the way they did the research (one group of children putting on a strict no-media diet, compared with a non-group), still other elements can play a role. The fact that the children from the test group were together at a camp, living for 5 days with peers is also a huge difference from students who lived just with their parents at the same time. It would have been interesting if there was also a control group of pupils attending camp being allowed to use their technological tools, imho. Also both groups didn’t quite match, actually, if you look at the data. I think this research is interesting to inspire further research, but I wouldn’t say that the findings are carved in stone yet. Social interaction at a 5 day outdoor camp can lead to a better understanding of emotions could have been also a correct title and explanation.

UPDATE: Also Daniel Willingham expresses similar doubts, check here.

Abstract of the research (open access):

A field experiment examined whether increasing opportunities for face-to-face interaction while eliminating the use of screen-based media and communication tools improved nonverbal emotion–cue recognition in preteens. Fifty-one preteens spent five days at an overnight nature camp where television, computers and mobile phones were not allowed; this group was compared with school-based matched controls (n = 54) that retained usual media practices. Both groups took pre- and post-tests that required participants to infer emotional states from photographs of facial expressions and videotaped scenes with verbal cues removed. Change scores for the two groups were compared using gender, ethnicity, media use, and age as covariates. After five days interacting face-to-face without the use of any screen-based media, preteens’ recognition of nonverbal emotion cues improved significantly more than that of the control group for both facial expressions and videotaped scenes. Implications are that the short-term effects of increased opportunities for social interaction, combined with time away from screen-based media and digital communication tools, improves a preteen’s understanding of nonverbal emotional cues.

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