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If your kid seems less capable these days of managing social situations, her attachment to digital devices might be at fault. A recent study suggests that kids are better at reading social cues after they’ve taken a break from electronic media.

In the study, a small group (51) of sixth grade students spent five days at an outdoor education camp, with no access to television, computers, cell phones, and other electronic devices. A similar number of preteens (54) from the same school and grade served as the control group and attended school as usual during the five days the experimental group was at camp. Both sets of students reported about four-and-a-half hours as their usual daily media use.

Before and after the experimental period, all the students took tests of their ability to recognize the emotional content of facial expressions from still photographs and silenced videos. Before the media blackout, the students in the experimental group scored the same as the students in the control group in their ability to read others’ feelings. But after the camp experience with no media access, the students in the experimental group scored significantly higher than the kids who stayed at school in their ability to respond to others’ facial expressions and nonverbal cues.

This is intriguing. The fact that a significant effect was found after such a short-term media diet with such a small number of students suggests that restricting digital access while upping face-to-face interactions is indeed effective in helping preteens understand others. It is possible, of course, that just being outdoors might have reset kids’ thinking. It might be that just the novel situation of being away at camp and engaging in all the group activities that go on in such a situation, may have been the bigger factor. It’s unclear if it was the lack of media or the increase in other things that caused the difference. But there was a difference.

During the preteen and teen years, the ability to read emotions of others (and oneself) is an important skill for social and life success. Previous studies have demonstrated that older kids are just not very good at this skill. So anything that interferes with this or that can enhance it is important to us parents. What should we do?

  1. Set limits on children’s media use. You’ve heard this before but here’s another reason to actually do something. If all that media is causing your child’s social skills to be stifled, it’s time to turn things off.
  2. Increase your children’s face-to-face interactions. Talk with your children and listen to them when they talk. Eat meals together. Help your kids have more time for friends. Kids can’t get better at reading social cues without practice in social situations.
  3. Change things up. The outdoor camp experience in the study was a different-from-normal way to spend five school days. How different-from-normal are your own days at home? Hiking trips, visits to the city, travel to other places, even taking in a movie together shakes things up, gives you and your kid something to talk about, and gets you all in a different, more social frame of mind.
  4. Go slow with educational technology. Schools are becoming more reliant on media, permitting students to engage with handhelds during class and even supplying students with handhelds to use. This might be a socially costly mistake.

We know that babies need human interaction to develop attachment to others and to feel good about themselves. We know that for babies and toddlers screen time is no substitute for real human interaction. It appears that older children are very much the same. The need for human interaction doesn’t go away.


© 2014, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Look for free downloads on Dr. Anderson’s website at