No, screen time doesn’t make your kids less able to read emotions

And we would scream together
Songs unsung
— Asia, “Heat of the Moment”

For some reason, the US seems bizarrely focused on creating rules that show how we are screwing up our kids. Well, actually, rules that suggest *you* are screwing up *your* kids, and mine are much better ThankYouVeryMuch.

The problem? It’s mostly garbage. The omnipresent argument that “today’s kids are different/worse/unfocused/spoiled” is mostly said about all generations.

It’s not hard to poke holes in the “research” that underpins this phenomenon. To wit, NPR publicizing some research out of UCLA that argues screen time (as measured as, more or less, any interactions mediated by anything silicon) yields lower ability to recognize human emotions.

Ah, where to begin?

Using “ability to identify human emotions” as a potential weakness of screen time seems odd — I would expect some cognitive outcome.  Frankly, using emotional recognition really seems like the psychographic equivalent of venue-shopping; in fact, they point out that they selected the measure after “comprehensive piloting”…

However, let’s ignore that.  They took about 100 students, divided them into two groups and then did their study.  All the students took a test that asked them to interpret emotions on faces projected before them.  The researchers counted the errors they made.

Then, half the students were told to go home and change nothing, then come back in to retake the test in about a week.  The other half went to an outdoor-oriented camp with no electronic access and then retook the test.

The researchers decided to use “change scores” as their dependent variable — the change from the first measure score to the second. This is well-traveled ground in experimental psychology.  It has really high statistical power; however, because of the statistical power, it’s easy to get a significant — not important — result.

The camp group made 14 errors in the first test, and then ~9.4 in the second test.  That’s a big difference, of about 4.6!  The control group made about 12.2 errors on the first test and about 9.8 on the second, for a difference of 2.4. And using a straight means comparison test called an F-test (which isn’t appropriate since, as all you astute readers already know, counts are not normally distributed), that difference is significant.

Where’s your crown,
King Nothing
— Metallica, "King Nothing"

So, the camp group reduced their errors by a LOT more.

But they also started at a much higher point (14 versus ~12). Even though the difference was greater, the final error number was the same. In other words, on the silly practical measure that screen time makes you less able to identify emotions, the two groups are the same (making 9-10 errors).  

The entire difference is because the camp group made many more errors on the pretest. The groups weren’t identical.  


Maybe screen time is bad for our kids — for *my* kids — but this study certainly doesn’t demonstrate that.