A new study has investigated how screen time affect tweens' ability to socialize, talk to each other and relate in the world.
Researchers found that tweens who spent five days at an outdoor camp, unplugged and media-free, were better able to understand emotions than their peers, who stayed home and continued their usual media diet. They determined that face-to-face interaction, coupled with time away from technology, was the difference for the girls and boys at camp; while they showed significant improvements in recognizing facial emotions and nonverbal cues, the control group revealed almost no improvement.
“It’s the most socially important study that I’ve ever been involved with, in the sense that it’s so directly applicable to the real world,” says Patricia M. Greenfield, a distinguished professor of psychology at UCLA and the study’s senior author. “It has clear and immediate implications for education and parenting, and for solving a social problem that hasn’t been recognized. And it is, to our knowledge, the first experimental study to look at the effects of new media on tweens.”
The study, which will appear in Computers in Human Behavior this October, focused on 6th graders at a public school in Southern California. Fifty-one girls and boys spent five days at a nature camp with a “no screens” policy, where they hiked, studied the environment and learned to cook food outdoors, among other activities. Not once did they look at a smartphone, computer or television. They were compared to a control group of 54 classmates who remained at home, went to school, and spent as much time as they wanted plugged in.
Students were tested at the beginning of the five-day period, and then again at the end, to assess any changes in their ability to decipher emotions. In one test, photos of 48 faces—some happy, some sad, others angry or scared—flashed across a screen, two seconds at a time. The students had to record the emotion of each face. In another, they watched videos of actors in everyday situations. There was no sound, so the students had to assess what the actors were feeling simply by watching.
After five screen-free days at camp, the students showed significant improvements in recognizing both facial emotions as well as non-verbal emotional cues. “They were able to look at a happy face and, before they may have said it was angry, but after they identified it as a happy face,” says lead author Yalda T. Uhls, a senior researcher with the Children's Digital Media Center @ Los Angeles and Southern California regional director of Common Sense Media. “It was surprising that in such a short time, the kids got better at recognizing emotion. That’s the good news; it takes so little time to reconnect.”