Thanks to Technology, Young People are Losing the Ability to Read Emotions

Children Have Lost The Ability to Understand Human Emotions
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IN PHOTO: A man plays a video game on Sony Corp's PlayStation 4 console at its showroom in Tokyo July 16, 2014. Reuters/Yuya Shino

Latest technology has limited children's opportunities for a face-to-face social interaction. Children prefer using social networking sites or playing games with virtual partners and this lack of opportunity for a face-to-face contact with another has reduced their social skills and their ability to read another person's emotion, according to a UCLA psychology study.

Patricia Greenfield, is a distinguished professor of psychology in the UCLA College and senior author of the study, said that people these days are focusing only on the benefits and the advantages of digital media but no one is looking at the consequences and the ill effects. Digital media has its own advantages on one hand, but on the other hand it decreases their sensitivity to emotional cues. She said that children were unable to discern another person's emotions, they were incapable of understanding what another was feeling and this was one of the costs that come with technology. The replacement of face to face interaction by screen interaction was the main reason for the loss in social skills, she explained.

They studied two sets of sixth graders from a Southern California public school. They found that sixth graders who were kept away from all sort of technology for five days were better at reading human emotions than the others who continued to spend long hours with their electronic devices. A group of 51 sixth graders were sent to a nature camp for five days, they were not allowed to use electronic devices for the same period. Another group of 54 sixth graders were also made to attend the camp but at a later date.

The students were observed on their ability to read another's emotions in photos and videos, both at the beginning and at the end of the camp.

In the beginning, they were unable to read the emotions in the photographs and videos accurately. But over the 5-day period they improved drastically, they were able to read non-verbal cues, facial expressions better than those who were using their media devices and were yet to join the camp.

Their errors were tracked as well, on an average of 14.02 errors were made at the beginning and 9.41 errors at the end of the camp. The scores of students who did not attend the camp did not change.

Lead author Yalda Uhls, a senior researcher with the UCLA's Children's Digital Media Center, Los Angeles said that non-verbal communication cannot be learnt from a screen but depends on face-to-face communication. "If you're not practicing face-to-face communication, you could be losing important social skills", Uhls added.

It is seen from the data collected from several surveys that students spend at least an average of four-and-a-half hours on a typical school day on gadgets playing games or texting.

Uhls said that now emoticons were substituting face-to-face communications and it is a poor substitute. Human beings are social creatures and have to mingle with other people. A device free time is a must.

The research will be in the October print edition of Computers in Human Behavior and is already published online.  

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