While technology use among young people offers some social advantages, face-to-face interaction does a better job of conveying emotional support and helping to read unspoken cues, new research contends.
In two separate studies on teens and young adults, researchers found that text messaging and social media’s emotional and psychological benefits are offset by an apparent cost.
One study showed that face-to-face support proved better than text messaging in brightening the moods of those who’ve just faced stress. The other study found that preteens who spent five days away from screens improved their ability to recognize nonverbal emotional cues.
“This is an extremely important phenomenon,” said Patricia Greenfield, senior author of the preteen study, and a professor of psychology at University of California, Los Angeles.
“Young people’s social lives are occurring through technology rather than in person … and I think it’s a disaster for society if people can’t read the emotions of other people,” said Greenfield, who is also director of the Children’s Digital Media Center at Los Angeles. “Social life depends on it.”
Both studies were scheduled for presentation Friday at the Society for Personality and Social Psychology’s annual convention in San Diego. Findings presented at meetings are generally viewed as preliminary until published in a peer-reviewed journal.
Children ages 8 to 18 spend more than 7.5 hours each day using media outside of school, earlier research has shown. And teens report using phones to text message more than any other form of communication, including face-to-face socializing.
Greenfield and her team compared 51 preteens who spent five days at an outdoor education camp away from technology with a group of kids who continued their usual media use. Both groups took tests before and after the five camp days. The tests asked them to interpret emotional states from photographs of facial expressions and videotaped scenes with the sound removed.
Teens who went to camp had many chances for in-person interaction. The researchers found that the teens who went to camp got much better at reading facial emotions than the kids who never gave up their technology.
In the second study, 64 young adult women completed a “stress task” involving public speaking and math. They were then randomly assigned to receive emotional support from a close friend through text messaging or face-to-face communication, or no support at all.
Those receiving face-to-face support experienced a significantly greater increase in positive mood following the stress task than those receiving text messages. However, participants rated the two support systems similarly.
“To me, it shows there are relationship benefits we get from text messaging,” said study author Susan Holtzman, an associate professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia in Okanagan. “And, it’s not that text messaging is necessarily bad for you, it’s just perhaps not as good at bringing us out of a stressful experience.”
Ellen Wartella, chair and professor of communication at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., said she wasn’t surprised by the findings of the two studies. But it’s important to strike a balance between face-to-face and online interactions, she said.
“There’s nothing wrong with using technology, but all things should be put in balance,” added Wartella, who is also a professor of psychology, human development and social policy. “That’s kind of an easy mantra having to do with any type of technology: Keep it in balance with the rest of your life, the other things you do.”
Greenfield contended that schools have been “rushing” to provide students with myriad electronic devices in the classroom, such as tablets and computers, “without thinking of the social cost.”
“I think the implication [of the new research] is we have to make absolutely sure that children have enough time [engaging] in face-to-face interaction, and from a young age,” she said.
The American Academy of Pediatrics offers tips on how to make a family media use plan.