Smartphones Are Making Kids Unable to Read Emotions

August 27, 2014
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The term “socially awkward” is used a hell of a lot more times nowadays than it used to. That’s partly because we’re more aware of it as a behavioral condition; and also because it’s become a somewhat trendy term that doesn’t seem to be as badly interpreted as it would have 20 years ago.

But for those of us who are adults and remember life before smartphones and social media ran our lives, it’s easier to relate to human emotions because as kids we had the training of actually interacting face-to-face with other people many times a day. Even if we didn’t want to, we were exposed to human expressions of joy, or sadness, or fear, or love, or anger. We got to experience first-hand what other people’s emotions were.

While this is obviously still very much available, and millions of kids have the advantage of a more informed parental and educational system that can cater to their needs, technology can also throw a setback or two on their way.


A study at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) has found that sixth graders that went five days without even looking at a smartphone, TV or digital screen of any kind became considerably better at reading human emotions than the other sixth graders from the same school that continued their extensive use of electronic devices.

A group of 51 kids were assigned to stay at the Pali Institute, a nature and science camp on the outskirts of Los Angeles, where the students are not allowed to use electronic devices. Another group of 54 kids remained at their regular school consuming any technological gadget they pleased.

Both groups were shown 48 pictures of people with a varied range of emotions, as well as videos of actors interacting with each other. The children were asked to describe the characters’ emotions.

While the initial first day tests showed both groups understanding a similar emotional range; through the five days, the camp kids had a significant improvement reading and relating to facial emotions and other non-verbal cues.

Many people are looking at the benefits of digital media in education, and not many are looking at the costs,” Patricia Greenfield, a psychology professor at UCLA and senior author of the study, said in a press release. “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.”

Students participating in the study reported that on a typical school day they spend about five and a half hours either on their smartphones, watching TV or playing video games.

Now, somebody, give me an emoticon that accurately reflects an emotionally stunted child. That should make things easier…

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