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Study: Digital Media Erodes Ability To Read Emotional Cues

The social skills of students who use digital media may be declining, according to a new study from researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA).

The researchers "found that sixth-graders who went five days without even glancing at a smartphone, television or other digital screen did substantially better at reading human emotions than sixth-graders from the same school who continued to spend hours each day looking at their electronic devices," according to a news release about the study.

"Many people are looking at the benefits of digital media in education, and not many are looking at the costs," said Patricia Greenfield, a distinguished professor of psychology at UCLA and senior author of the study, in a prepared statement. "Decreased sensitivity to emotional cues — losing the ability to understand the emotions of other people — is one of the costs. The displacement of in-person social interaction by screen interaction seems to be reducing social skills."

For the study, researchers looked at two groups of students from the same school. The first group, comprising 51 students, attended outdoor school at the Pali Institute, a science and nature camp that doesn't allow student use of electronic devices. The second group, with 54 students, was allowed to use their devices as usual and did not attend the Pali Institute until the study was completed.

Both groups were shown 48 pictures of happy, sad, angry or scared people and asked to identify their emotions, both at the beginning and end of the study. "They also watched videos of actors interacting with one another and were instructed to describe the characters' emotions," according to a news release. "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."

Students who had gone without digital media averaged 14.02 mistakes in the picture test before attending camp. After five days without screens, their scores improved to an average of just 9.41 errors per student. Camping students showed similar improvements on the video test. Students who had not yet attended camp showed a much smaller average improvement on the image test and no change on the video test.

"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 (CDMC), Los Angeles, in a prepared statement. "If you're not practicing face-to-face communication, you could be losing important social skills."

The research will be published in the October edition of Computers in Human Behavior. An online version of the study is currently available at sciencedirect.com.

About the Author

Joshua Bolkan is the multimedia editor for Campus Technology and THE Journal. He can be reached at jbolkan@1105media.com.

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