By Los Angeles Times.
What happens when 50 sixth-graders go to a nature camp where they'll have no access to computers, tablets and mobile phones? A new study suggests that their ability to read nonverbal social cues improves after just five days.
Nonverbal social cues are the emotional information we pick up from people around us that is not communicated through words. It includes facial expressions, eye contact, tone of voice and body posture.
Researchers have wondered if children are losing the ability to read these important cues. More time is spent corresponding with their friends via texting rather than talking to them in person.
Yalda Uhls, who runs the Los Angeles office of the nonprofit Common Sense Media, said the idea for the study came from watching her daughter communicate with friends. “I’ve been at parties where the kids are all hanging out, but instead of looking at each other, they are staring at their phones.”
Uhls is the lead author of the study published in the scientific journal Computers in Human Behavior.
The researchers wanted to see what would happen if a group of children had to spend an extended period of time communicating without their devices. Uhls and professor Patricia Greenfield found a public school that sends its sixth-grade class to a wilderness camp near Big Bear, California, for five days. At the camp, the students have no access to electronics.
When the class of about 50 children arrived at the camp, they took two tests to measure their ability to read nonverbal social cues. In the first, the kids were asked to judge the emotions portrayed in 48 photos of people making faces. In the second test, they watched a video with the sound turned off and then judged the emotional state of the actor.
At the end of the five-day camp, the students took the tests again. According to the researchers, the kids made an average of 14.02 errors on the face-recognition test at the beginning of their camp stay but only 9.41 errors by the end.
On the video test, they correctly named an average of 26 percent of the emotional states at the beginning of camp. By the end of their five-day stay, the students got 31 percent correct.
Uhls said the researchers were surprised to see those results after just five days. She was encouraged by what they showed though. If lack of face-to-face time is changing people's ability to understand emotion, she said, the results suggest that putting devices away for five days is enough time to improve that ability.
The researchers gave the same test to a control group of 54 sixth-graders from the same school who had not yet attended the camp. That group made an average of 12.24 mistakes the first time they took the face-recognition test and 9.81 mistakes when they took it again five days later.
For the video test, the students’ scores stayed flat. Students in the control group got an average of 28 percent of the emotions correct both times they were tested.
Though the children who were at the camp showed a larger improvement over the five days than those who did not go to camp, the end results were not that different.
“I noticed that too,” said Uhls, “but even though the kids ended up in the same place, they started at different places, so the change is what we are really looking at.”
Uhls and Greenfield said the results of their study suggest that it is important for kids to spend time away from screens. It does not necessarily suggest that all screen time is bad.
“The main thing I hope people take away from this is that it is really important for children to have time for face-to-face socializing,” said Uhls. “I love media, my kids are media-savvy, but it is really important to have a balance.”
1. How long after going to camp does it take for the ability to read nonverbal social cues to improve?
2. At parties what did Uhls observe that children were doing?
3. What does Uhls believe it is important for children to have?