It’s no secret that kids spend far too much time sitting in front of screens and plenty of research says this growing screen addiction is far from healthy. Now though, new research out of the University of California, Los Angeles shows that beyond all the other negative aspects of screen overuse, too much screen time may prevent youth from being able to correctly read facial emotion in others. The study, published in the journal Computers in Human Behavior, found that when youth are exposed to in-person interaction without access to screen-based or media devices, their nonverbal emotion understanding of other humans improves significantly. The study looked at a group of sixth-graders who attended an outdoor nature camp for five days. While the kids were at the camp they were denied access to screens and exposed to increased peer interactions. Before camp the camp-bound kids, plus another group of control kids were given pre-tests regarding nonverbal emotional cues. After the camp concluded, the researchers gave the camp kids and the other same-age control kids post-tests regarding nonverbal emotional cues. The results? After five screen-free days, the camp kids recognition of nonverbal emotional cues improved significantly over the control group. In general, kids who had regular access to screens, including phones, computers and TV could not read human emotion as well as the kids who went screen-free for five days. You may wonder why being able to read nonverbal emotion cues even matters, but it’s a big deal. Keep reading to learn more.
Nonverbal communication is defined as communication without words. Some nonverbal communication includes facial expression, eye contact, and tone of voice, and more subtle keys such as posture and spatial distance between two or more people. The study says, “The understanding of these kinds of nonverbal social cues is particularly important for social interaction because of the need to modify one’s own behavior in response to the reactions of others.” Plus, kids need to be able to learn how to effectively process emotional cues as they affect many personal, social and academic outcomes in either a negative or positive way. Lastly, kids who understand emotional cues tend to have better overall social skills and more positive peer relationships. In-person human interactions away from screens help kids develop an accurate understanding of nonverbal emotion cues — and the study also notes that cooperative interaction among siblings have even been shown to predict later skills in effective labeling of facial expressions and understanding of emotions. To sum up, kids cannot learn how to interact with other humans as well via screens. They need to experience face-to-face interactions to build positive social skills and to be able to understand the emotions of others. This is why screen-free play dates, peer time and other human interactions are a huge deal, and this research gives you just one more good reason to turn off those computers, phones and televisions.