We have all heard it before: “Children don’t know grammar anymore because they only do text”, or “Today’s generation misses everything that is happening around them because they look at their phones. ” Corn recent UCLA study warns that damage from too long screen time may be even worse than many of us imagined . The study, which will be published in the October 2014 issues of Computers in human behavior, found that digital media reduced children’s ability to read other people’s emotions.
The researchers provided sixth-graders with a pre-test to establish their basic abilities to read emotions. The students were shown photographs and videotaped scenes where the sound was cut off. Participants were then asked to infer people’s emotional states based on facial expressions and non-verbal cues.
Half of the students were then sent to a camp where they did not have access to digital media. They spent their time doing traditional camp activities – hiking, archery and exploring nature. The control group carried out their daily activities as usual, including their normal access to digital media (which, for these students, averaged about four and a half hours per typical school day).
After five days, both groups participated in a post-test. Children who attended camp showed significant improvements in their ability to recognize emotions. The control group showed only slight improvement. The authors concluded that the increased face-to-face interaction improved the social skills of campers.
What could this mean for adults?
Although the study participants are children, that doesn’t necessarily mean that adults are immune to declining social skills. After all, the study participants were sixth-graders – likely between the ages of 11 and 13. We’re not talking about preschoolers who just learn emotions. They are pre-teens who should already understand the basics of feelings and should already have a number of sophisticated social skills.
Could too much time behind a screen interfere with adults’ ability to recognize emotions? I think so. After all, social skills are like other life skills. You have to practice them to get better. And when our faces are buried in our phones and the majority of our conversations take place behind a screen, it inevitably impacts our ability to socialize effectively in person.
Obviously, the ability to recognize how someone else is feeling is an essential business skill. Sell a product to someone? You had better notice if this person is losing interest more and more. Are you trying to work effectively with your employees? You will need to recognize when they are feeling frustrated. Research even shows that social skills can be just as important as intelligence when it comes to being successful. (See my previous article Research Shows Successful Leaders Are Not Just Smart – They’re Socially Adept).
Obviously, our ability to recognize how other people are feeling is an essential skill in our personal lives as well. How many marriages have fallen apart due to a lack of communication? Understanding how to read a partner’s nonverbal cues can greatly influence relationship satisfaction.
Sharpen those social skills
The good news is that the children in the study improved their social skills after just five days of being away from their electronic devices. While most of us don’t have a week-long summer camp that we can retreat to on a regular basis, perhaps we can practice taking regular days off from our electronics. Opting out of social media, emails, and news feeds one day a week could help improve our social skills.
Or what if we just made the conscious choice to add a little more face-to-face socializing to our schedules? Maybe socializing with friends in person rather than social media or spending more time talking with our counterparts rather than networking on LinkedIn could be a step in the right direction.
We all meet people who we think are quite “incapable” when it comes to social skills and emotion recognition. However, we’re not always very good at recognizing our own shortcomings in the social skills department (see my previous post: Do your peers see you as a pushover or a jerk? Study Shows You May Be Unconscious). It is likely that exchanging emoticons for face to face contact can help us all hone our social skills .
Amy Morin is a psychotherapist and author of 13 things mentally strong people don’t do, a bestselling book that has been translated into over 20 languages.