Smartphones Study Says No Screen Staring Improves Social Skills in Kids



Kids nowadays seem to have less face-to-face social skills than any previous generation of children because of the prevalence usage of smartphones, iPads, and other gadgets. In fact, according to a survey that was conducted by Common Sense Media in 2013, the percentage of the sample population of toddlers who are “tech savvy” under age two has risen to 38 percent, compared to just 10 percent in 2011. The increase of kids using smartphones and other gadgets caused some people to worry that this habit can cause them to be less socially apt among society. Perhaps limiting or even removing kids’ smartphones and screen-staring habits for a few days can improve their social skills, according to a recent study that was published in volume 39 of Computers in Human Behavior.

The UCLA experiment had 51 preteens who had spent five days at a nature camp where all types of media, including smartphones and TV, were prohibited. This group was compared with a control group (n = 54) that are in a regular classroom setting with access to computers and cell phones. Before the camping group went off to the wilderness, both group took a pre-test that tested the students’ ability to identify emotional states from photos of different facial expressions and video scenarios without any verbal cues.

While the control group continued with “regular” school and have access to smartphones and computers, the camping group traveled to the Pali Institute — 70 miles outside of Los Angeles — where students learned basic outdoor survival skills, archery, ecology of the forest, team work, and building emergency shelters. After the five-day excursion, both groups are tested again.

Dr. Yalda Uhls, who is the lead researcher from the Department of Psychology in UCLA, and her colleagues found that the camping group improve their scores by five percent while the control group showed no change in their score in the pre-test and post-test (28 percent).  They stated that “children in the experimental group showed significant improvement in their ability to recognize the nonverbal emotional cues in videotaped scenes, while the emotion-reading cues of the control group showed no change between pretest and posttest.” They cannot, however, determine exactly which factor plays a significant in this change since they were not able to separate the group experience, outdoor experience, and absence of screen time in the camping group.

This study may be striking just the tip of the iceberg on potential problems associating with excessive screen staring and smartphones and other gadgets usage that may decrease face-to-face social skills among kids today. A previous study that was published by the Kaiser Family Foundation in 2012 found that there might be a correlation between social media usage with academic performance and personal relationships, such as school grades, getting along with parents, and boredom.

A sample study of 2,002 kids between third and twelfth grade, ages eight to 18, that were taken between October 2008 to May 2009 showed that 51 percent of the “heavy users” reported getting A’s and B’s compared to 65 percent of “moderate users” and 66 percent of “light users.” About 60 percent of “heavy users” reported that are often “bored,” as opposed to 53 percent of “moderate users” and 48 percent of “light users.”

However, the study “cannot establish whether there is a cause and effect relationship between media use and grades, or between media use and personal contentment.” It is very possible that these factors could run both ways, such as boredom may increase the usage of social media.

Kids who stare at smartphones or other types of screens reminds one parent in Albuquerque, New Mexico, of her early college experience regarding social skills after she read the UCLA study. “The study gives me a pause,” Elizabeth Shiels reflected in an online interview with Guardian Liberty Voice. “When I was in college over 20 years ago, the guys that played Dungeon and Dragons or what not were easy to spot because they were very socially awkward. If you don’t hang out with people, you get weirder and weirder. This study demonstrates what I think, and that is not good!”

While the study may yield some evidence that eliminating screen staring time with smartphones and other gadgets can improve social skills and behavior, Shiels mentioned that she wants to share the study with her own kids and talk about emotionally vulnerability that may occur with texting and online communication. “How can you tell your ‘friend’ is lying to you or making up all kinds of nonsense if you can’t read their body language? My son is in sixth grade and he always demonstrated a good sense about people. But what will happen if he has free reign on the computer? The study says, ‘That’s not good.’ It is quite ironic: I am alerted to the realities of the internet, and social media that I have enjoyed so much from the internet and social media! Such is parenting — never a dull moment.”

By Nick Ng


Kaiser Family Foundation
Pew Research Internet Project
Common Sense Media
Interview with Elizabeth Shiels