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Screen Time vs Face-to-Face Interactions

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“I am glad I grew up in a time before technology took over.” This is an ever present quote showing up on my social media sites in a variety of forms. The idea is quite humbling when I realize that deep down I am actually grateful for a childhood which had limited screens to distract me from being present and living in the moment with my friends, family and community.

As a parent and youth development professional I realize technology is not going away and in fact our lives are better for it. The majority of our schools are teaching and doing a wonderful job of incorporating technology into our youth’s daily life. However, the challenge is how to find the balance of the screens and personal interactions/social skills. Our youth sit in a classroom all day working on their tablets while being distracted by their cell phones or their chat box popping up on their screen. The amount of accessibility they have to information and their peers astounds me. It seems television has taken a back seat compared to the smartphones and tablets for the amount of time youth utilize these devices. 

Among families with children age 8 and under, there has been a five-fold increase in ownership of tablet devices such as iPads, from 8% of all families in 2011 to 40% in 2013. The percent of children with access to some type of “smart” mobile device at home (e.g., smartphone, tablet) has jumped from half (52%) to three-quarters (75%) of all children in just two years.

Source: A Common Sense Research Study in October 28, 2013 titled: Children’s access to mobile media devices is dramatically higher than it was two years ago.

This topic hits close to home for me. Our two kids are different in their social skills. The younger one is outgoing and will talk to just about anyone who will give him a smile. Our eldest is a bit more reserved and is hesitant to start conversations with new people. To my surprise though, last week we were discussing this difference between the two of them when our eldest stated she had talked to two people that day at school that she normally didn’t talk to. The next statement out of my mouth completely caught me off guard. I asked, “Was it over the computer, phone, or in person?” She stated it was face-to-face. The fact I had to distinguish between the varieties of avenues she had available to interact with her peers punched me in the gut.

The lack or desire to experience face-to-face interactions with their peers is unnerving as the benefits of face-to-face communication vs screen communication is enormous.

When engaging in face-to-face communication, social information is conveyed by vocal and visual cues within the context of the situation. Nonverbal communication, defined as communication without words, includes apparent behaviors such as facial expression, eye contact, and tone of voice, as well as less obvious messages such as posture and spatial distance between two or more people (Knapp & Hall, 2010). The understanding of these kinds of nonverbal social cues is particularly important for social interaction because of the need to modify one’s own behavior in response to the reactions of others (Knapp & Hall, 2010). The capability to effectively process emotional cues is associated with many personal, social and academic outcomes (Knapp and Hall, 2010 and McClure and Nowicki, 2001). In addition, children who better understand emotional cues in a social environment may develop superior social skills and form more positive peer relationships (Blakemore, 2003 and Bosacki and Astington, 1999).

Source: Computers in Human Behavior 39 (2014) 387–392 Five days at outdoor education camp without screens improves preteen skills with nonverbal emotion cues. Authors: Yalda T. Uhls,  Minas Michikyan, Jordan Morris, Debra Garcia, Gary W. Small, Eleni Zgourou, Patricia M. Greenfield

There need to be opportunities available to youth to practice and improve their social skills. Youth development organizations like 4-H offer these activities to engage youth in public speaking and demonstrations. If there is one item I am continually impressed with in regards to 4-Her’s it's their ability to speak in front of a group. Their poise and ability to articulate their point of view is unparalleled. The key to their strength in public speaking is not something they have automatically achieved. They have practiced repeatedly, sometimes for many years, to perfect their skills. As a parent and  youth development professional we must wage the good fight to push (gently) our youth to put down the screen and come to the table to chat about their day and future plans.