It’s looking as if screen time actually decreases the development of an essential part of our children’s moral fiber. This is not to suggest screens create immoral individuals. However, a new key study shows teen “empathy” is significantly decreased in those who are digital addicts.

Withhold Judgment, Please

As with any “addiction”, the compulsion to do “the thing” (whether it be drugs, alcohol, gambling, sex, screens, etc.) the participant loses perspective of the obsession. With teens, their brains are not fully developed. They still have several years before they can make “mature” and rational judgments.

What’s happening with electronics is that our children, when spending a large amount of time participating on them, are unaware of what they are missing out on. They, frighteningly, are becoming less empathic. Empathy is a necessary, communal attribute, and it’s still in its development process during the teen years.

What’s Empathy Anyway?

Think of it this way: if you’ve had a baby, pet, or have been around animals, you’ll recognize and understand more simplistically. Empathy is a natural compulsion towards understanding the feelings of others.

When you’re sick or sad, your dog cuddles up next to you or howls because he wants to comfort you and also “feels” your pain. Animals grieve and comfort their own family members because they are naturally empathic.

Humans (most) have a functioning empathy “gene”. Babies cry when mommy cries or stresses. It’s a type of survival instinct that develops through social contact. You’ll see a lot of young children comforting their peers, for example, even if they’ve never met them before.

Here’s the Thing About Empathy

We, as part of the animal kingdom, may be born with the empathy feature, but in humans, it still requires nurturing, practice, and experience to develop fully. Face-to-face experiences are decreased when our kid is on a screen.
When gaming online, facial cues are obsolete.

So when someone gets mad, upset, or feels victorious online, it’s all registered through voice or typing words.  None of these “feelings” are expressed person-to-person. Then when the child is in a group setting (like school or on a team), he will have more difficulty understanding others’ feelings. In turn, he may not understand what others think or feel about him.

Social Skills and The Study

Social skills can be learned, but not necessarily “taught.” We can model behavior, but just telling someone what is socially acceptable is not the same as the person practicing it. Personal interactions are necessary for our children to understand the world a bit better.

Researchers at UCLA discovered that when kids were removed from screens, their ability to be empathic improved. The study asked 11, 12, and 13-year-old kids to look at photos and identify emotional expressions. Half of the group was without electronics for five days (and spent time at an outdoor camp), while the other half went about spending hours each day on their screens.

On the sixth day, all the kids were asked to read other people’s emotions in photos and videos. The group that was off screens could better (significantly) identify others’ feelings. The researchers deduced that kids’ social skills were enhanced when they had face-to-face contact.

Outside Play

No one can deny the health benefits when kids play outside. Exercise and releasing energy is great for everyone. Other studies have proven that outdoor activity can reduce stress and help sleep quality. Click here for more information on kids’ best health practices.