A new study released by University of California Los Angeles researchers shows that children who were denied screen time for five days improved their ability to read nonverbal emotion cues by a greater amount than a control group who had screen time as usual for the same period. Students across both groups self-reported an average of four and a half hours of screen time per school day, so while there are a number of questions raised by the study, the results do give pause for reflection.

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The study involved two groups of LA sixth graders aged between 11 and 13, one of which was sent to the Pali Institute outdoor camp for five days without screens of any kind, while the other stayed home and went about their normal activities. There were 51 students in the camp group and 54 in the control group. Students were given a test of their ability to recognize other people’s emotions in photos and nonverbal videos at the beginning and at the end of the five-day period. Students were shown 48 pictures of faces that were happy, sad, angry or scared, and asked to identify their feelings. They were also shown videos of adult and child actors communicating nonverbally and asked to describe the emotions portrayed.

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The team reported results as follows: “In the experimental condition, participants went from an average of 14.02 errors in the Faces pretest (including both child and adult faces) to an average of 9.41 errors in the posttest (a reduction of 4.61 errors), while the control group went from an average of 12.24 to 9.81, which was a reduction of 2.43 errors (we attribute this change to a practice effect.)” However, if the ‘practice effect’ was at play with the camp group as well, that would leave a difference of only 2.18 errors between the two groups’ scores. Scores for correct recognition of nonverbal emotional cues in the videos increased from 26 percent correct to 31 percent correct for the camp group, and remained steady at 28 percent correct for the control group. But since showing students videos of emotional interactions itself counts as screen time, is that the clearest test of their improved ability to read nonverbal emotional cues as a result of in-person social interaction?

The team also couldn’t rule out variables related to the new environment of the outdoor camp setting: “A limitation to our study is that we cannot disentangle the effects of the three factors: the group experience, the nature experience, and the absence of screens, as these variables were all features of the experimental condition. We hypothesize that the effect of being in a setting that included potentially more opportunities for face-to-face group interaction than were afforded in the control group was the critical factor.” The main takeaway for the team, however, was that although the two test groups wound up with similar final scores, the level of improvement of the screen-free group was significant. The team now hopes to further the experiment by undertaking the tests using different sets of activity variables. They would also like to test participants on the longevity of the results; for example, by seeing how the screen-denied group scored after five days back at home reunited with their devices.

The full study is CC licensed and can be read as a pdf here.



Images by Toca Boca via Flickr; and UCLA