Social interaction includes not only conversations but also the identification and understanding of nonverbal cues. These cues, including facial expression, tone of voice and eye contact, provide important information when interacting with others. In fact, those that better understand these cues tend to have better social success and stronger peer relationships. We learn these cues with experience throughout childhood and gradually integrate them into any social interaction. However, the availability of screen-based media and its broad use such as video games, computers, tablets, smart phones, and televisions may be decreasing the amount of social interaction in children.
Previous studies have found that high amounts of screen time has been associated with attention problems, school difficulties, sleep and eating disorders, and obesity. Researchers from California wanted to examine whether this increased screen time was also affecting how teens recognized nonverbal emotional cues. The trial, published in Computers in Human Behavior, found that preteens who spent time away from screens became better at reading human emotions compared to their peers who were not restricted from screens.
This observational trial included 106 6th graders from the same school in Southern California. From the group, 51 children were assigned to an experiment group that lived together at a nature and science camp without using screens for 5 days and 54 children were assigned to a control group that were not restricted from using screens. The control group remained in a normal school schedule and went to the camp after the study was conducted. Researchers scored the children's ability to identify a range of emotions in other people through photos and muted videos before and after the study.
The study found that children who spent 5 days without screen use and with encouraged face to face interactions had a significant improvement in their scores compared to the beginning of the week.
An observational study examines an intervention in a naturally-occurring environment. Researchers do not intervene but simply assess outcomes and try to account for factors that may influence the outcome. These types of trial can not determine cause and effect but suggest a possible connection.
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, children aged 8-18 years old spend more than 7 hours a day looking at a screen. This amount of screen time can clearly impact the amount of face to face time that a teen has. The American Academy of Pediatrics offers the following advice for screen time:
Talk to your child's pediatrician about whether screen time is affecting your child's health and development.
Family Doctor—American Academy of Family Physicians
Healthy Children—American Academy of Pediatrics
Media and children. American Academy of Pediatrics website. Available at: http://www.aap.org/en-us/advocacy-and-policy/aap-health-initiatives/Pages/Media-and-Children.aspx. Accessed October 2, 2014.
Uhls Y, Michikyan M, et al. Five days at outdoor education camp without screens improves pre-teen skills with nonverbal emotion cues. Computers in Human Behavior. 2014 Oct;39:387-392.
Last reviewed October 2014 by Michael Woods, MD