It seems peculiar to suggest that in this social media driven age that our social skills could be in decline. After all, we send millions of messages to each other every day, so surely all of that communication must be helping? A new study suggests however that not only is it not helping our social skills, it may actually be harming them!
The study, from researchers at UCLA, found that when participants were forced to abstain from using their smartphone, or indeed any other digital device, for just five days, they became significantly better at reading the emotions of their peers, which is seen as a crucial part of our social acumen.
"Many people are looking at the benefits of digital media in education, and not many are looking at the costs," the researchers said. "Decreased sensitivity to emotional cues—losing the ability to understand the emotions of other people—is one of the costs. The displacement of in-person social interaction by screen interaction seems to be reducing social skills."
The impact of a digital detox
Researchers enrolled participants from a camp in California where people are banned from using any electronic devices whilst on site, with a control group of their peers who had not attended the same camp.
Before the stay at the camp, both groups were evaluated on their ability to understand the emotions of other people via photo and videos. Each participant was shown nearly 50 photos featuring sad, angry, happy or scared people, and were asked to identify the emotion in each photo.
In addition, they also viewed videos featuring actors engaging with one another, and were asked to describe the emotions displayed by each character. The same test was done after a five day period to gauge any potential change in behaviour.
Amazingly, over such a short space of time, the participants who had no access to digital devices showed a significant increase in their ability to read facial emotions. They could also pick up on nonverbal clues about someones emotions better than previously, and significantly better than the control group who retained access to their digital devices.
A 50% improvement
In terms of cold, hard facts, those in the camp would make an average of 9.41 emotional detection errors by the end of the experiment period, which was a drop from 14.02 at the start of the experiment. The control group showed no such improvement, which is pretty amazing.
"You can’t learn nonverbal emotional cues from a screen in the way you can learn it from face-to-face communication," the researchers state. "If you’re not practicing face-to-face communication, you could be losing important social skills."
In addition to taking this simple test, the participants were surveyed on the extent of their digital usage. It emerged that on a typical day, they would spend around 4.5 hours either watching television, playing video games or texting on their mobile phones. Even this figure is lower than others that have looked at digital usage around the country.
That such a big change can occur after such a short period of time underlines the significant damage digital usage can be inflicting on our social skills. What’s more, the researchers suggest that the more we use digital devices, the more damage we do to our social skills.
"We’ve shown a model of what more face-to-face interaction can do," they conclude. "Social interaction is needed to develop skills in understanding the emotions of other people."
Suffice to say, it is probably asking too much to log-off completely, but the research underlines the value in having a digital detox now and then to re-tune our social skills face-to-face.