This new article in Computers in Human Behavior is really interesting. A research team led by Patricia Greenfield wanted to know “whether increasing opportunities for face-to-face interaction while eliminating the use of screen-based media and communication tools improved nonverbal emotion–cue recognition in preteens.” So they set up this experiment:

Fifty-one preteens [specifically, 6th graders] spent five days at an overnight nature camp where television, computers and mobile phones were not allowed; this group was compared with school-based matched controls (n = 54) that retained usual media practices. Both groups took pre- and post-tests that required participants to infer emotional states from photographs of facial expressions and videotaped scenes with verbal cues removed. Change scores for the two groups were compared using gender, ethnicity, media use, and age as covariates.

What did they find?

After five days interacting face-to-face without the use of any screen-based media, preteens’ recognition of nonverbal emotion cues improved significantly more than that of the control group for both facial expressions and videotaped scenes. 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.

Now, the good news in this study is that while lots of screen time may inhibit kids’ ability to read nonverbal emotional cues, they can get this skill back. The kids in both groups were pretty similar going in, but the group that spent the week at camp (specifically a place called the Pali Institute) became more skillful at reading the cues.

This study, by the way, broadly confirms findings of a 2012 study by Clifford Nass and Roy Pea that multitasking may harm teenage girls’ social/emotion development, but real interaction cures it.

So when publications like Quartz report on the study by declaring that “Psychologists say overly connected children can’t read human emotion,” they’re not exactly incorrect (well, actually they are— “can’t read human emotion” is a strong version of the article’s claim), but they emphasize a negative “technology destroys our humanity” angle rather than a “people can get back their abilities” angle.