A new study suggests too much tech-time could mess with children's emotional intelligence.

By Samantha Zabell
Updated August 25, 2014
Credit: Eric Fowke/Getty Images

Screen time could be seriously limiting children’s social abilities, according to a recent study from psychologists at UCLA. It turns out emojis are a poor substitute for actual emotions, and all that texting might have an impact on the ability to form positive peer relationships.

Every day, children spend hours with technology. In fact, in 2010, a Kaiser Family Foundation Study found children ages 8 to 18 spent more than seven hours using media outside of school. And from 2011 to 2013, children have gained more access to “smart” devices—in those two years, access jumped from 52 percent to 75 percent. These trends, among others, prompted UCLA psychologists to investigate the real cost of hours spent bonding with technology.

A group of sixth-graders from a public school in Southern California was tested on “emotional intelligence,” or the ability to “read” people’s emotions in pictures and videos. On average, the students reported spending more than four hours a day texting, watching TV, and playing video games outside of school. They were asked to identify emotions ranging from happiness to anger from various photos and videos of peer interactions. Then, they were split into two groups: One group of 51 students traveled to the Pali Institute for five days, and the other 54 remained at school.

The Pali Institute is a nature and science camp that immerses students in outdoor activities, and prohibits the use of electronic devices. After five days, both groups were tested again—the students who had just returned from camp showed significant improvement. They originally averaged 14.01 errors when discerning emotions, but after five Candy Crush-free days, they only made 9.41 errors. The students who remained at public school did not show substantial change.

The researchers say the findings point to serious ways that screens limit our face-to-face interactions, and stunt our social growth. The ability to read nonverbal cues is an important part of children’s growth, as it allows them to adjust their behavior accordingly. Teens report texting is their preferred mode of communication, which means they spend the day wrestling with autocorrect instead of talking in-person to their friends.

Yalda Uhls, the lead author and senior researcher with UCLA’s Children’s Digital Media Center in Los Angeles, says the study shows that face-to-face communication hones important social skills.

“We are social creatures,” Uhls said in a press release. “We need device free time.”

As a parent, try to lead by example. See what happens when you step away from social media—it might make your actual social life a lot more fun!