The fact is we all stare at screens more than we would like and many of us rely on these tools to communicate with others, even during times when we should be spending quality time with our families and friends. So does all this time staring at screens, which may take time away from looking at faces, change the nature of what we learn about the social world? Our study, at the Children’s Digital Media Center@LA, at UCLA, asked this question. We compared two groups of approximately 50 6th grade children each over a period of five days, one group had no access to screens of any kind, while the other did.
But how does one find young people willing to give up all media for a few hours, let alone five days (especially with no funding for the study!). We explored the ways we could guarantee that a large enough group of children would stop using media and found a simple solution. An outdoor education camp for public school children, the Pali Institute, came on as our partner. The camp director worked with us to make sure that during the 5 days of the camp, children had zero access to screens of any kind – no TV, no phones, and no computers. This meant that the kids at the camp could only talk to other people using the form of communication our species has used for millions of years – face-to-face.
Our next task was finding the right control group and the choices were again limited. We explored working with a camp in which children used screens most of the day. But ultimately we decided that the selection effects (the kids going to these camps were kids that loved computers and their parents could afford the high tuition) would limit our findings. Thus, we chose to compare the camp group with a school group. Our experimental and control group came from the same public school and thus many critical demographics were controlled for.
Social abilities are quite complex, but an essential underlying skill is non-verbal emotion-understanding; children learn about emotion even before they learn language, by first paying attention to a caregiver’s face. Watching faces and paying attention to the interaction of people around them provides children with essential facts for survival – who can I trust, who will love me and whom should I be scared of? We chose emotion understanding as our measure because of these early and important social learning skills. Our fist choice of test was a test of faces, both children and adults, expressing 4 emotions in high and low intensity. While this test has been extensively validated, we also felt that we needed something closer to real life, because we don’t look at static faces when learning about the world. So we found another test — videos with actors performing relatable scenarios for children, with the sound muffled. This test allowed the participants to consider context, body language and voice tone when making their judgments on emotion.
Honestly, we were not sure that after only five days of looking at faces versus screens anything would change. Anecdotal evidence abounds that children who stop using media become magically kind, respectful and patient, but hard data is limited. But there may be some basis for parent intuition, because we found that children’s skills in reading emotion in both faces and videotaped scenes got dramatically better. We believe that the time they spent interacting in groups, with their peers and counselors, with no devices in their hands or in front of their faces, made an important difference. The kids at camp improved their emotion understanding, while the kids who were at school did not.
So what’s the takeaway, should kids not look at screens anymore? Unless you want to move to Siberia, and I am only saying that figuratively because chances are even Siberia has the Internet, I think that ship has sailed. Instead, take heart that it took only 5 days for kids to improve; in other words, screen-time does not create irreversible damage to children’s social skills. The rules are still the same as they always have been – create balance and device-free time in children’s lives. And when kids are small, make sure to give them many opportunities for rich in-person social interaction.
Our call to action is we must examine this question further. Before screens become the only thing we ever look at (remember the movie Wall-E) let’s devote some resources to study the costs and benefits. The stakes are high, and our children are worth it.
To read the study in open access, here is the link.