kids playing at home with smartphones


Kids are always on their phones, tablets or computers – even when they’re sitting across from one another at the lunch table! Does communicating via screens hurt kids? We talk to two researchers who found that too much screen time at the cost of face-to- face communication could decrease our ability to recognize emotions, and possibly even shorten our lives.

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  • Patricia Greenfield, Distinguished Professor of Psychology, UCLA, Director of the Children’s Digital Media Center, Los Angeles, CA
  • Susan Pinker, psychologist, journalist, author of The Village Effect: How face-to- face contact can make us healthier, happier and smarter

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Face-to-face communication: how it can help kids

Marty Peterson: Young people seem to disappear into their cell phones, tablets, and computers for hours on end, and when you add television to that total, it’s a good chance that they spend most of their waking hours alone in front of one type of screen or another. Patricia Greenfield is a distinguished professor of psychology at UCLA, and director of the Children’s Digital Media Center in Los Angeles. She wondered if all of this screen time had any effect on young people’s ability to interact with others. So, she and her colleagues designed an experiment to find out. Specifically, she wanted to know if technology was interfering with young people’s ability to read the emotions of others. She tested a group of sixth-graders from a public school – about half were housed at a camp for five days, with no access to electronic devices. The other half just stayed home and lived their lives as usual. Afterwards, the two groups were tested to see how well they recognized emotions.

Patricia Greenfield: There were two tests. In one test there were photographs with different facial expressions showing different emotions and they had to look at the photograph and say what the emotion was. And then the other test used videotaped scenes of people interacting in various kinds of social situations with the verbal cues removed and the participants, the children, had to say what emotions were being expressed, this time at different points in the videotaped scenes.

Peterson: The photographs depicted a range of emotions, and they moved by at a brisk pace.

Greenfield: Forty-eight photographs of faces, 24 were children’s faces, 24 were adult faces, with happy, sad, angry and fearful emotions and they were in both and high and low intensity. So the low-intensity ones would have been more subtle and the high-intensity ones would have been more obvious. Each face was flashed onto the screen for two seconds and then after each face was flashed on the screen, each participant would record on a sheet the emotion that the actor was showing.

Peterson: Greenfield says that the video portion of the test was more complex, because the students had to follow the actors as the scenario progressed.

Greenfield: You had to see the changes in the emotions, that made it more complex, and the second test was much more real life, also. Normally we don’t see pictures flash of emotion but we do see social scenes of action and interaction. So you had to figure out the changing emotions, but you also had to see how one actor was responding to the other actor and how the other actor was responding to the first actor.

Peterson: Greenfield says that the students at the camp who weren’t allowed to have cell phones, tablets, computers or TV fare better in recognizing emotions in both tests than those participants who stayed home. But the researchers don’t think that just the absence of screens was the reason…

Greenfield: We think it’s the replacement of screens by interaction with human beings. This was a very interaction-intense experience at camp. The kids were living together in bunks, they were going on hikes with their counselors and with their group, they were eating together. They were constantly interacting face-to-face with other human beings. We believe that that’s what caused the effect. But of course if you are interacting four plus hours a day, which was the case in their everyday life, you’re not going to be interacting with people as much. Screen time is going to be displacing person time.

Peterson: If face-to-face communication helps us recognize emotions in others better, can it also be good for our overall health? Developmental psychologist and author Susan Pinker thinks so. Her latest book is titled, The Village Effect: How face-to-face contact can make us healthier, happier and smarter. Pinker says that to see how personal contact affects people, just visit the island of Sardinia…

Susan Pinker: There are huge numbers of centenarians, 10 times as many in this area of Sardinia as in North America where we do things like hot yoga and take multi-vitamins and do Sudoku puzzles, etc., and there’s six times as many as on the Italian mainland, so I thought, “What are they doing right?” So I went there with my adult daughter who just graduated to find out. And what I discovered was that as people age, in fact all through life, they have very rich social lives and they are never, ever, left alone. Unlike what happens here, where you know as you age you social networks become thinner and thinner until you’re really quite isolated. So that’s what got me started on the question of “What is it about face-to-face contact that keeps us not only happier, but living longer?”

Peterson: Pinker says that research hasn’t found a definite “cause and effect” between technology use and lower happiness levels and life expectancies, but there is a correlation…

Pinker: What we can say, though, is that since the 1980s, since people started to have laptops and more recently smartphones and tablets, we’ve never been lonelier than we are now. In the early 80s, the average number of confidants that Americans had was about three, and now we have less than two people that we can depend on and about 20 percent of Americans say they have no one at all to talk to. About 30 percent of Americans say that they are deeply lonely and unhappy about it. And in 1985 that rate was eight percent. So we do know that two things are happening at the same time. In terms of education, we have a stronger connection in that we know from studies that the strongest predictor of school success in children is having a wonderful teacher for just one year in middle school. We also know that the technology that has just exploded in recent years has not really given us the results that everyone had hoped for.

 Peterson: Pinker says that face-to-face interactions cause biological changes in our bodies than time spent texting just doesn’t duplicate…

Pinker: Oxytocin is released which allows you to trust other people. It helps you read other people’s emotions in their faces. It helps you mimic their body language and all of these kind of fairly invisible types of signs are incredibly important for communication and for building trust. We know that when you communicate face-to-face it damps down your levels of cortisol which are a measure of how much stress you’re experiencing and you’re feeling now. We know that the amount of face-to-face contact that you have and the diverse number of relationships that you have can switch on and off the genes that regulate tumor growth. So all-in-all, we have a lot of evidence that points in one direction which tells us that we have evolved for close social contact, and while the digital and online world is essential for sharing information and for searching, it’s not as great for deepening those human connections that we need to survive and thrive.

Peterson: Pinker says that research shows that various levels of technology have different effects on our biological responses to stress – but that close human contact is still the best.

Pinker: What these researchers did is they purposely set out to stress out some teenage girls by giving them math problems to solve within a time limit in front of an audience, too. And they divided them up into four groups, one who would have contact with their mothers afterwards, face-to-face; the second group would have contact with their mothers by telephone; the third group via text; and the fourth group, which was a control group, would have no contact at all. And what they did is they had these girls spit into a cup so they could measure the cortisol levels in their saliva to know how stressed out they were before and after. And what they found was, the cortisol levels decreased the most for the group of girls who could see their mothers face-to-face after the stressful event. Next came the girls who could speak to their moms on the phone. And, you would think that next would come the kids who had gotten a text that said, you know, “I’m with you all the way, honey. How was it?” but what researchers found was that the girls who received a text and the girls who received no contact at all, their cortisol levels were exactly the same.

Peterson: Pinker says that humans are just programmed to be physically near one another as much as possible, and that’s the underlying message of The Village Effect. She encourages people to think long and hard about opportunities for face-to-face communication in their neighborhood, family and at work.

Pinker: If you want to create the Village Effect, look for places where people connect. Are there places where they gather in the community? Do you neighbors talk to each other? Second, at work, build real human contact into your workday. Get up and talk to your colleagues. Don’t just shoot them an email. And see your clients and partners at least every year or 18 months to keep that relationship alive. For kids, I would say nothing predicts school success and happiness like face-to-face contact on a regular basis. So parents commit to having family meals without screens with your kids and control how much time your kids are spending online, ramping up gradually as you get over. So something that people don’t realize is you don’t just need your intimates, but you need a village of diverse relationships. So in Sardinia, those centenarians, they were spending time with their neighbors, the shopkeepers, their friends, their second cousins and their nieces. So invest time in your community, in your civic team and group activities that will expand your social set. You need more than a handful of close friends and family to be healthy and happy.

Peterson: There are many other suggestions, along with the research studies to back them up, in Susan Pinker’s book, The Village Effect, available at stores and online. She also invites listeners to visit her website at To read about professor Patricia Greenfield and her research at the Children’s Digital Media Center, log onto For more information about all of our guests, you can log onto our site at Our show is written and produced by Pat Reuter. Our productions directors are Sean Waldron and Reed Pence. I’m Marty Peterson.