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Digital media is making young people lose the ability to read emotions

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As children come into contact with electronic media, a new study shows that the embracing of this technology does have a side effect: young people who indulge in a lot of digital media are lacking the proper social skills to read other people's emotions.

A UCLA psychology study found that 11 and 12-year-olds who spent a large amount of time with their electronic devices were worse at reading human emotions than their peers who went five days without exposure to digital media.

"Many people are looking at the benefits of digital media in education, and not many are looking at the costs," says Patricia Greenfield, senior author of the study. "Decreased sensitivity to emotional cues - losing the ability to understand the emotions of other people - is one of the costs."

However, the study found that taking smartphones away from children for five days improved their social skills.

A group of psychologists studied two groups of sixth graders from the same school. Of those students, 51 lived together for five days at a camp where electronic devices are not permitted. The other 54 students kept their devices. Psychologists surveyed participants and discovered that they all texted, watched television and played video games on electronic devices on an average of more than four hours per day.

Before the study began, psychologists evaluated both groups by showing them pictures of faces depicting emotions, such as happy, sad, angry and scared. Psychologists also showed videos and asked the children to describe the emotions in each.

At the end of the study, the groups were re-evaluated. Psychologists discovered that those who'd been at the camp without their electronic devices had significant improvements in their ability to read emotions, either from facial or nonverbal cues. Those who used their smartphones saw no improvements.

The results show that when children use electronic media often, they are spending less time learning important social skills and how to read others' emotions.

"You can't learn nonverbal emotional cues from a screen in the way you can learn it from face-to-face communication," says study lead author Yalda Uhls "If you're not practicing face-to-face communication, you could be losing important social skills."

Parents can monitor how much time children spend with electronic devices. Instead of handing them a smartphone for entertainment, a previous study done at the New School in New York City shows that handing them a book is better. The study suggests that reading fiction makes children not only better at reading emotions, but also more empathetic to what others are feeling.

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