Digital Devices May Hinder Ability to Read Emotions

In the modern digital world, are we more connected than ever before, or more disconnected? Does this world expose us to information and ideas that we would never otherwise encounter, or does it help us to stay contentedly isolated in our comfort zones? Does social media help us to stay in touch with family and friends, or does it cut us off from acquaintances and strangers alike?

There are many unanswered questions about the dominance of digital interactions in this day and age, and, of course, the answers to these questions are not the same for everybody. But a new study from UCLA suggests that digital media may be negatively impacting our social skills in at least one way: hindering our ability to read emotions.

The researchers, led by senior author and professor of psychology Patricia Greenfield, evaluated a group of 105 sixth-grade students in the Los Angeles area on their ability to correctly identify emotions in photographs and videos. Fifty-one of the students were evaluated before and after a five-day nature and science camp, while the remaining 54 were attending school as usual for the course of the study. During their five days at camp, the 51 students did not have access to digital screens of any kind, including smart phones.

When surveyed prior to the study, both the camp group and the control group reported watching television, using social media, playing video games and texting for an average of 4.5 hours per school day. According to the study authors, this figure is consistent with and perhaps even a bit lower than the national average for screen time in this age group.

Improvement After Screen-Free Days

At the start and end of the study, both groups of sixth-graders were asked to identify a series of happy, sad, angry and scared faces in photographs. They were also asked to describe the emotions of the characters in two videos while the characters displayed excitement, anxiety or sadness. The photographic test was designed to evaluate the students’ ability to read facial emotions, while the video test evaluated their ability to pick up on non-verbal emotional cues.

The study found that the students who went without digital media for five days showed an improved ability to recognize emotions in photos and videos. Prior to their five days at camp, the group of 51 students made an average of 14.02 errors in their photo evaluations, but after the five days, they made an average of only 9.41 errors. They also improved significantly in their ability to describe the emotions displayed by the characters in the videos. In contrast, the students who attended school as usual showed only a very slight improvement in their ability to read emotions from photos, and no improvement in their ability to describe the emotions from the videos.

More Face-to-Face Social Interaction May Be Key

The underlying truth behind these results is likely the fact that digital interaction cannot replace face-to-face interaction. Use of digital media probably does not degrade our ability to read emotions on its own, but instead indirectly causes this result by replacing in-person socializing. As lead author Yalda Uhis puts it, “You can’t learn nonverbal emotional cues from a screen in the way you can learn it from face-to-face communication.”

For the students in this study, the interactive and social nature of the camp experience was probably crucial to their improved ability to read emotional cues. During the five-day camp, the students lived together in cabins and engaged in highly interactive learning experiences.

There is still hope.

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