group elementary school students in computer classThe other day some colleagues and I were talking about a common topic of children and digital media—in particular how a lack of interaction with the ‘real’ 3D world could be detrimental to aspects of brain development. We have some compelling ideas that gaze in early attachment is important for resonance between caregiver and baby, and that the resonance between mother and child, on a neural level, is ‘building’ the ‘social brain’ of the child. The wonderful and important complexities of such face-to-face interactions likely continue for our entire lives, our experience of connecting with one-another when in close proximity (as opposed to a screen), looking into another’s eyes, is foundational to our social fabric.

A recent study at UCLA looked at how the social skill of reading human emotions may be threatened by too much ‘screen time’ and not enough face-to-face interaction. The researchers wanted to know if screen-based media time was a factor in children’s lack of ability to read nonverbal emotional cues. The study simply took a sample of children away on a nature camp without any devices or TV where they had to engage in face-to-face interactions, while a control group continued with their normal media-rich lives for a period of 5 days. There was a significant improvement by the experimental group, after the 5 days, in their ability to recognize nonverbal emotional cues compared to the control group.

Patricia Greenfield, the senior author of this study said “Many people are looking at the benefits of digital media in education, and not many are looking at the costs… Decreased sensitivity to emotional cues—losing the ability to understand the emotions of other people—is one of the costs. The displacement of in-person social interaction by screen interaction seems to be reducing social skills.” Yalda Uhls, the lead author, further comments that “You can’t learn nonverbal emotional cues from a screen in the way you can learn it from face-to-face communication…If you’re not practicing face-to-face communication, you could be losing important social skills.”

It seems surprising to me that such positive results in the experimental group could be gained in just 5 days of screen-free time and more face-to-face interaction. I guess that’s a testimony to our amazing adaptable brains, especially in young growing brains as in this study.

With the use of technology increasing all the time (and admittedly this blog is part of that world) it does seem to me that creating “screen-free” time for our children (and ourselves) is going to be an important challenge if we want an empathic society.

You can read the study online here http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0747563214003227