Cracking Down on Adolescent Screen Use Studies

Last week NPR featured a story about middle schoolers and their use of smart phones, tablets and other digital devices. Last week I also happened to take smart phones away from both of my middle schoolers to rectify some off-putting habits, namely ignoring me. So when I heard even a few days without screen time improved adolescent emotional skills, I envisioned my daughters skipping down the drive later that afternoon, full of new-found appreciation and empathy for each other and their mother. In the meantime, I wandered over to the study behind the claim.

Five Days at Outdoor Education Camp Without Screens Improves Preteen Skills with Nonverbal Emotion Cues

That's the title of the study. Basically kids who spent five days at camp were better at reading emotions both in facial expressions (in photographs) and social behavior (in videos).

Now I'm a huge fan of social interaction especially when I observe kids hanging out with friends in the car, the sidewalk outside school, the yogurt store or Starbucks, texting and posting while ignoring each other. No phones are permitted at the Momma Data dinner table where conversation and social interaction are encouraged even in the form of grunts and nods. I'm a social psychologist by training after all. 

But people, don't power down yet, this is hardly tight evidence. It's a basic though clever field experiment, thus a messy, loose collection of data full of possibilities and conjectures. Yes, emotional skills were measured before and after the school camping trip. That's fortunate. However the study only involved about 100 6th-graders, 51 screen-deprived (and likely sleep-deprived) campers, and 51 of their classmates left behind with televisions, computers and phones.

The real problem - it is impossible to conclude which part of the five-day field trip produced the results.

Why were kids better able to identify emotions?

Sure it could be due to more opportunities to practice reading faces. 

It could also be due to leaving home, homesickness, living in a new environment or bunking with other kids in tight quarters. It could be due to relief from the usual academic pressures, stress or drudgery. Or sleep deprivation, camp food, the fresh air, the sounds of nature, bug spray, dirt, fear of bed bugs, sleeping in a womb-like sleeping bag, campfires, roasted marshmallows, motivation to get along and win best cabin or most camp spirit (had to be). Or a break from Youtube. It could be due to all of the above or any of the above. I suspect a little of each. Take your pick. 

At least the study authors acknowledge the possibility of "increased opportunities for social interaction" - and in the title at least, the role of the outdoors though their message is clear. It's really the screens creating the problems. 

Implications are that the short-term effects of increased opportunities for social interaction, combined with time away from screen-based media and digital communication tools, improves a preteen’s understanding of nonverbal emotional cues.

A better study would have had another 50 classmates at camp with their regular media/screen fare. Better still, add another 50 who stay at school and don't watch any screens (a nearly impossible scenario). I might propose that for the middle school trips next year. The principal should jump on that real-world learning opportunity. They could do it as a science project. The hardest part would be getting informed consent from 200 parents and getting those screens away from 50 kids stuck at home. I'd be more than happy to supervise the project from home. Just give me the word, dear principal.

As for my own middle schoolers, they didn't skip home nor did they appear any more attuned to me or my emotional state (or anyone else's) after their recent 3-day screen-free school trips. In fact my 6th-grade daughter bunked in a remote cabin and still, no observable differences unless a few comments about boys misbehaving and teachers acting weird count. Perhaps two more days would have done the trick? 

RESEARCH GEEKS:  I wonder what other measures the researchers used to assess the kids. Obviously we would have heard about them if they'd turned out significantly improved in the campers. I don't appreciate when "studies" fail to provide this relevant information. There must have been at least several other variables that didn't vary between the groups. If I'd be in charge, I'd throw in an empathy scale at the very least. 

UPDATE: This all spells a poor prognosis for online preschool. See Report: Increasing Numbers of U.S. Toddlers Attending Online Preschool (via The Onion). 

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