Time away from screens helps kids pick up social cues

  • Article by: DEBORAH NETBURN , Los Angeles Times
  • Updated: September 2, 2014 - 9:39 AM

As children spend more time corresponding with their friends via text rather than face to face, researchers wondered whether they were losing the ability to read nonverbal social cues.

Photo: Illustration by Gary Meader,

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What happens when you take 50 sixth-graders and send them to a nature camp with no access to computers, tablets and mobile phones? A new study suggests that after five days their ability to understand nonverbal social cues improves.

Nonverbal social cues are the emotional information we pick up from people that is not communicated through words. It includes facial expressions, eye contact, tone of voice and body posture.

As children spend more time corresponding with their friends via text rather than face to face, the researchers wondered whether they were losing the ability to read these important cues.

“The idea for this study came from looking at the way my older child and her friends’ older siblings were communicating,” said Yalda Uhls, who runs the Los Angeles office of the nonprofit Common Sense Media. “I’ve been at parties where the kids are all hanging out, but instead of looking at each other, they are staring at their phones.”

Uhls and Patricia Greenfield of the University of California, Los Angeles, found a public school that sends its sixth-grade class to a wilderness camp near Big Bear, Calif., for five days. At the camp, the students have no access to electronics.

When the class of about 50 arrived, they were asked to take two tests to measure their ability to read nonverbal social cues. In the first, they assessed the emotions portrayed in 48 photos of people making faces. In the second test, they watched a video with the sound turned off, and then made a judgment about the emotional state of the actor.

At the end of the five-day camp, the students were asked to take the tests again. The researchers report that over the five days the kids went from making an average of 14.02 errors on the face-recognition test at the beginning of their camp stay to 9.41 errors by the end. For the video component, they went from getting an average of 26 percent of the emotional states correct to getting 31 percent correct.

“Honestly, we were pretty surprised that just five days would have that affect,” said Uhls. “But we think this is good news because if indeed lack of face-to-face time is changing people’s ability to understand emotion, our results suggest you can disconnect for five days and get better.

“It is really important for children to have time for face-to-face socializing,” said Uhls. “I love media, my kids are media-savvy, but it is really important to have a balance.”

The study was published in the journal Computers in Human Behavior.

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