Family life

Screen-free kids have better social skills: Study

A new study has found that the more time kids spend screen-free the better they are at detecting emotional cues in others.

kids and screen time social skills Photot: iStockphoto

"Everyone else has an iPad and a DS! Why can't I have any of those?" wailed my seven-year-old son, Isaac. To further emphasize his point, he stomped his foot, yelled that it wasn't fair and retreated to his bedroom with a book.

What my son said was true: All of his other friends really do have handheld devices, sometimes two or three each. Hand-me-down iPhones from their parents, iPads as Christmas gifts or video games bought with birthday money. A few of his friends have iPads to help with special-needs learning in the classroom, but, for the most part, the handheld devices are toys—very expensive toys. In our house we have one TV set that only plays DVDs, one Wii console, one laptop and two smartphones (without apps for kids)—a digital device quota that some days seems like one device too many, especially when my kids turn into zombies after too much screen time.

Read more: Would you allow TV in your kids' bedrooms?>

I can easily draw parallels between my kids' poor behaviour and how much screen time they have, which is why we have strict screen-time limits for everyone in our family. It's also why I'm not surprised by the findings in a recent study about the effects of screen-time on the social skills of preteens.

Researchers from the non-profit group Common Sense Media conducted a study on the behaviour of 105 preteens, where 51 students spent five days at an overnight camp where screens were banned while the other group continued their usual media practices. Both groups took pre- and post-study tests that required them to guess the emotional states of people in photographs and videotaped scenes with the verbal cues removed. After five days of interacting face-to-face with each other and without any screens, the ability of the students to recognize emotional cues had improved significantly compared to the other group. Results from the study were published in the October edition of Computers in Human Behavior.


"In today’s world, digital media use begins at a very early age and takes up a large proportion of the informal learning environment, making it essential to assess the effects of the substantial amount of time children engage with media," Yalda Uhls, the study's lead author says. "This study provides evidence that, in five days of being limited to in-person interaction without access to any screen-based or media device for communication, preteens improved on measures of nonverbal emotion understanding, significantly more than a control group."

Children who did not attend the screen-free wilderness camp had test scores that remained flat, meaning that their ability to detect changes in emotional and facial cues did not improve, whereas the children who did attend the camp were better able to read facial expressions.

“Honestly, we were pretty surprised that just five days would have that affect,” Uhls says in an interview with The Toronto Star. “But we think this is good news because, if indeed lack of face-to-face time is changing people’s ability to understand emotion, our results suggest you can disconnect for five days and get better.”

Considering we live in a digital age where being tech-savvy is a survival skill, the debate over whether youngsters should remain screen-free usually falters. Indeed, it is impossible to escape computers and screens, especially in the classroom, where the SmartBoard in my daughter's kindergarten classroom is a huge draw for students, and my son has his own login for his classroom computers.

Read more: Technology-free weekend: How my family survived>


Going screen-free for five days, like the students in the study, likely isn't realistic for many families, but I believe that there can be big benefits from even small breaks from smartphones and laptops for not only children, but adults, too.

Follow along as Jennifer Pinarski shares her experiences about giving up her big city job and lifestyle to live in rural Ontario with her husband, while staying home to raise their two young children. Read more Run-at-home mom posts or follow her @JenPinarski.

This article was originally published on Sep 22, 2014

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