Want to improve your social skills? Try less technology!

Michael Ly
24 June 2015

Above: Image © istockphoto.com/Yury Shchipakin

Have you ever wondered whether that boy or girl in your calculus class has a crush on you? Or if the Grade 5 bully still dislikes you? The ability to read and understand other people’s emotions, as well as your own, is called emotional intelligence.

Did you know? Market researchers predict that there will be 2.5 billion smartphone users by 2017.Smartphones and video game consoles can certainly be entertaining, but the effect of “looking at digital screens” on social skills has not been extensively studied. However, recent research suggests that the use of technology can have a negative impact on your emotional intelligence.

How big is the potential problem? How many of your classmates have a smartphone or some other electronic device? One study involving over 2,000 young people showed that 8- to 18-year-olds spend an average of over seven and a half hours a day being exposed to digital media, including television and computers.

A 2014 study by researchers at UCLA looked at how the use of digital media affects children’s ability to read other people’s emotions. The researchers compared two groups of preteens:

an experimental group consisting of 51 children who spent five days at an outdoor educational camp without access to any electronic devices; and a control group, consisting of 54 children who attended a typical week of elementary school with no restrictions on the use of electronic devices.

How Technology Affects Kids’ Social Emotional Learning

Common Sense Media

Psychologists used two tests to measure the students’ ability to read emotions. The first test used photos of people making a facial expression to portray an emotion and the second used videos of actors performing a scene to express an emotion. The kids in both the experimental group (camp) and control group (school) had to guess what emotions were being expressed in the photos and videos at the beginning of the study and again at the end of the study.

On the photo test, students in the experimental group made a huge improvement after spending five days at camp, making an average of 4.61 fewer mistakes when reading the emotions expressed in the photos. Students in the control group improved too but not nearly as much, making only 2.43 fewer mistakes on average. The experimental group became better at interpreting the videos, with correct answers increasing from 26% to 31%. The control group, however, showed no improvement at all.

All things considered, this study suggests that limiting access to electronic screens for five days may enhance a young person’s ability to read emotions and strengthen their emotional intelligence. However, it’s important to note the limitations of the study. As the researchers explained, “we cannot disentangle the effects of the three factors: the group experience, the nature experience, and the absence of screens.”

Did you know? Schools that teach emotional intelligence to their students tend to have more academic success, stronger teacher-student relationships, and less aggressive behaviour like bullying.In other words, access to electronic devices was not the only difference between the experimental group and the control group. The experimental group was also at a camp with various fun group activities, whereas the control group was stuck in school. So it is difficult to say whether the improvements in emotional intelligence were because of the absence of electronic devices, the time spent of nature, the participation in group activities, or a combination of these factors.

Another research group performed a correlational study of 201 random participants who were assessed for their degree of Internet addiction and emotional intelligence by asking them survey questions for each respective variable. The study found that there was a negative correlation between Internet addiction and emotional intelligence, suggesting that the more signs of Internet addiction that you show, the less likely you will be able to understand others' emotions.

From fundraising to education, the advantages of digital media are clear. However, initial research suggests that using digital media may come at a high cost to emotional intelligence. To be on the safe side, if you really do want to know if that boy or girl in your calculus class likes you or if the Grade 5 bully still dislikes you, you might want to reduce your screen time.

Learn more!

Modeling habitual and addictive smartphone behavior: The role of smartphone usage types, emotional intelligence, social stress, self-regulation, age, and gender (2015)
A. J. A. M. can Deursen, C. L. Bolle, S. M. Hegner & P. A. . Kommers, Computers in Human Behavior 45

Five days at outdoor education camp without screens improves preteen skills with nonverbal emotion cues (2014)

The Relationship between Emotional Intelligence and Technology Addiction among University Students (2012)
J. Hasimmi, M. Babaie & F. Babaie, Addiction & Health 4

Y. T. Uhls et al., Computers in Human Behavior 39

Generation M2: Media in the Lives of 8-to-18 Year-Olds (2010)
V. J. Rideout, U. G. Foehr & D. F. Roberts, Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation

Scientific articles on the relationship between technology and emotional intelligence.

Why Access to Screens is Lowering Kids’ Social Skills (2014)
Belinda Luscombe, Time

In our digital world, are young people losing the ability to read emotions? (2014)

UCLA/Science Daily

News articles on the relationship between technology and emotional intelligence.

Michael Ly

I'm currently a 3rd year BSc student at University of Toronto, enrolled in the specialist program in Molecular Genetics. I enjoy reading and learning about diverse fields of science, especially genetics, astronomy & psychology. I also enjoy playing sports, reading fiction novels and hanging out with friends! Science is awesome because it's all around us!

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