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Does our love affair with our digital media really impact how well we interact emotionally with others?

There have been a number of articles written and shared by those who have chosen to disconnect from their digital devices to try and regain that sense of balance in their lives. They nearly all report that while difficult initially, after a while they no longer missed their technology and enjoyed revisiting time to spend on other activities.

But does too much screen time really diminish social skills and if so, are we going to end up as a bunch of emotionally void automatons?

A recent study conducted by UCLA compared two groups of sixth graders to see what difference five days without connection to electronic devices would make to their ability to differentiate between different human emotions based on facial cues.
The average amount of time each student (in this study) normally spent connected digitally during school time watching TV, texting or playing videogames was 4.5 hours per day.

The first group of 51 students went on camp for five days with the stipulation that no electronic devices were allowed. After some initial grumblings, the students adapted quickly to the new rules. The second group stayed at school and were allowed free access to their electronic media.

Both groups were evaluated for their ability to recognise people’s emotions based on photographs and videos shown to them at the beginning and end of the five day period.

Those who attended the camp improved significantly over the 5-day period in their ability to recognise emotions of others with their error rate dropping from 14 down to 9 of the 48 images shown. The second group showed a significantly smaller change.

Similarly with the videos depicting different emotion, the camp attendees improved their ability to distinguish emotion compared to the non camp group. There was no difference between boys and girls.

Patricia Greenfield, head author of the study said, ” many people are looking at the benefits of digital media in the classroom, and not many are looking at the costs, one of which is losing the ability to understand the emotions of other people.”

Another researcher, Yalda Uhls said “you can’t learn non verbal emotional cues from a screen in the same way as you can learn it from face to face communication.”

The implication here being that if just 5 days of a social media diet is sufficient to produce a significant improvement in social skills, perhaps we would all benefit from regularly switching off from all our gadgets, and tuning back into recognising how to pick up if someone is sad, anxious, happy.

It’s about retaining what makes us human – being socially connected and understood.


Yalda T. Uhls, Minas Michikyan, Jordan Morris, Debra Garcia, Gary W. Small, Eleni Zgourou, Patricia M. Greenfield. Five days at outdoor education camp without screens improves preteen skills with nonverbal emotion cues. Computers in Human Behavior, 2014; 39: 387 DOI: 10.1016/j.chb.2014.05.036

Dr Jenny Brockis

Dr Jenny Brockis is a medical practitioner and internationally board-certified lifestyle medicine physician, workplace health and wellbeing consultant, keynote speaker and best-selling author. You can now pre-order her new book ‘The Natural Advantage’ due for publication in October 2024.

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