Are smartphones making young people emotionally stunted?



NEW YORK – It’s the generation that can understand exactly how you’re feeling through a few simple emoticons.

But now researchers claim that children are now so engrossed in their phones, they are unable to accurately read how people are feeling in real-life.

This is the result of less face-to-face time interaction, according to the study, which found young kids are glued to electronic devices for nearly five hours each day.

The finding was made after testing the ability of 11 to 12-year-olds to recognise the emotions of people pictured in photos.

‘Many people are looking at the benefits of digital media in education, and not many are looking at the costs,’ said study author Patricia Greenfield, professor of psychology at the Children’s Digital Media Center, part of the University of California, Los Angeles.

‘Decreased sensitivity to emotional cues – losing the ability to understand the emotions of other people – is one of the costs.’

The psychologists studied two sets of 11 to 12-year-olds from a Southern California public school: 51 who lived together for five days at the Pali Institute, east of Los Angeles, and 54 others from the same school.

The camp doesn’t allow students to use electronic devices – a policy that many students found to be challenging for the first couple of days.

The students were shown 48 pictures of faces that were happy, sad, angry or scared, and asked to identify their feelings.

They also watched videos of actors interacting with one another and were asked to describe the characters’ emotions.

Students who went five days without looking at a smartphone, television or other digital screen did ‘substantially’ better at reading human emotions than those who spent time on their phones.

Researchers also tracked how many errors the students made when trying to describe the emotions in the photos and videos.

When looking at the photos, for example, those at the camp made an average of 9.41 mistakes at the end of the study, down from 14.02 at the beginning.

‘You can’t learn non-verbal emotional cues from a screen in the way you can learn it from face-to-face communication,’ said lead author Yalda Uhls.

‘If you’re not practicing face-to-face communication, you could be losing important social skills.’

Professor Greenfield considers the results significant, given that they occurred after only five days.

Professor Uhls added that emoticons are a poor substitute for face-to-face communication: ‘We are social creatures. We need device-free time.’



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