Children may be getting better — not worse — at reading emotions

How do new technologies impact social learning?
verkeorg, flickr.com, CC BY-SA 2.0
verkeorg, flickr.com, CC BY-SA 2.0

When you see a kid with their head buried in a smartphone you may write it off as anti-social behaviour. But with more interactions happening online, research shows children may be developing social skills in new and surprising ways.

Some parents worry that children growing up surrounded by screens may be missing out on skills they would typically learn from face-to-face conversations. The fear is that these technologies could disrupt early development when children learn to interact with others, including how to pick up on nonverbal cues like tone, facial expression and body language.

But researchers at UCLA may have just put this idea to rest. Contrary to their initial hypothesis, they found the iPhone generation can read emotions on screen just as well, if not better, than those who came before them. In a study of sixth graders from a Southern California school, the authors found that students from the 2017 cohort – who would have been born around the dawn of the iPhone – could better identify emotions in photographs  than the 2012 cohort, who went through early childhood without widespread exposure to smartphones and tablets. While this study did not show whether these skills transferred to everyday life, previous research has found these tests effectively predict social and emotional competence.

“As children scroll through photos on social media or take selfies, they could be learning to better understand emotions and facial expressions.”

The results may seem surprising, but they make a lot of sense, says Yalda T. Uhls, lead author and founder of the Center for Scholars & Storytellers. As children scroll through photos on social media or take selfies, they could be learning to better understand emotions and facial expressions.

“The traditional narrative has been that these screens are limiting their ability to have any social learning, but this study indicates that they are able to learn these nonverbal social cues,” Uhls says.

Uhls has studied the effect of media on children extensively as a researcher, parent and author of Media Moms & Digital Dads. Parents have shared concerns about how screentime could affect children’s development, from sleep disruption to peer relationships, but more evidence is needed to understand the positive and negative effects. Uhls hopes this new study alleviates some worries as it shows children are picking up useful social skills.

“While interacting online has its benefits, it appears there is still no substitute for real-life engagement.”

In this study, the iPhone generation did better at identifying emotions in photos, but their scores were comparable when it came to video. Uhls notes this may change as children shift from photo to video content and platforms like TikTok. Her team is currently designing a study on changes in learning nonverbal cues through videochat during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Especially with COVID-19, children are learning on screens more than ever,” says Uhls noting that the demand for online and blended learning will only continue to grow.

While interacting online has its benefits, it appears there is still no substitute for real-life engagement. In a previous study, Uhls found children who spent five days at a camp away from screens were better at recognising nonverbal emotional cues. For example, when kids talk face-to-face, they can pick up on so many more cues, maintain better eye contact and pay closer attention than they would over a Zoom call. Still, Uhls says digital technologies and platforms play an important role in how young people socialise.

“Young people want to interact in person and be with their friends,” she says. “[Interacting online] is just something they can do when they don’t have that possibility.”

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