Smartphones can make kids emotionally dull

Young people may be losing the ability to read emotions as digital devices such as smartphones, TVs and tablets are destroying their face-to-face social skills, a new study has found.

A study by University of California, Los Angeles found that sixth-graders who went five days without even glancing at a smartphone, television or other digital screen did substantially better at reading human emotions than sixth-graders from the same school who continued to spend hours with their electronic devices.

"Decreased sensitivity to emotional cues-losing the ability to understand the emotions of other people-is one of the costs. The displacement of in-person social interaction by screen interaction seems to be reducing social skills," said Patricia Greenfield, a distinguished professor of psychology in the UCLA College and senior author of the study.

The psychologists studied two sets of sixth-graders from a Southern California public school: 51 who lived together for five days, 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. At the beginning and end of the study, both groups of students were evaluated for their ability to recognize other people's emotions in photos and videos.

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 instructed to describe the characters' emotions.

The children who had been at the camp improved significantly over the five days in their ability to read facial emotions and other nonverbal cues to emotion, compared with the students who continued to use their media devices.

"You can't learn nonverbal emotional cues from a screen in the way you can learn it from face-to-face communication," said lead author Yalda Uhls, a senior researcher with the UCLA's Children's Digital Media Centre, Los Angeles.

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