Technology is growing quickly and so is the pressure to teach children how to use smart phones, tablets, and computers at younger ages. It's hard to believe that some of the first words that children can say are “Facetime" and “Skype."

This culture centered on a 2x4 inch screen begs the question: just how positively does technology influence our lives? Past studies have shown that technology can aggravate anxiety because it has become something that people can't live without. The October 2014 volume of Computers In Human Behavior features a field experiment led by Yalda T. Uhls on the effects of five days without any technology on preteens. The results from a few days in nature and away from screens suggest that smartphones and computers might actually have an adverse effect on the youth.

A Generation Trained on How Not to Interact

Social Anxiety Disorder (SAD), as defined by the DSM-V, is a strong and persistent fear of humiliation or embarrassment in social situations. One of many cognitive distortions that plays a role in strengthening this fear is mind reading, or fortune telling. An individual reads someone's mind when he or she assumes something as true before communicating with the other.

Mind reading is common in the world of social media. Because users cannot accurately convey tones, body language, and facial expressions in type, there is a lot of room for implication and speculation. This lack of emotional cues that you can only get from face-to-face interactions unintentionally trains people to read in between the lines, looking for the meaning behind 120 characters. This behavior is problematic, though, because it encourages people to attempt to read minds rather than communicate and interact with others.

Unplugging from Technology and Planting Yourself Back into Nature

The goal of the experiment was to see if increasing opportunities of face-to-face interaction while eliminating face-to-screen interactions could improve nonverbal emotion-cue recognition in preteens. Uhls recruited 51 sixth graders from one public school in Southern California to participate in the experiment and 54 sixth graders from the same school were used as a control. During the pre-testing, Uhls found that both groups averaged spending four and a half hours each day texting, watching TV, and playing video games.

51 students were sent to the Pali Institute, an outdoor education and science camp facility located 70 miles outside of Los Angeles. There, students were neither permitted to use electronic devices nor interact with any sort of screen. There were zero face-to-screen interactions at the Pali Institute. Instead, students had to spend more face-to-face time with each other in communal cabins, on hikes, and when performing group tasks such as emergency shelter building. The five days spent at this nature camp forced the students to work together and socialize.

Uhls and her team found that “children who were away from screens for five days with many opportunities for in-person interaction improved significantly in reading facial emotion." Five days at camp had taught these sixth graders how to properly read someone's emotions and interact accordingly. Uhls measured this by having the students identify the emotion of actors in a series of videos. The students who went to camp performed much better than the control group.

Preteens Showed Significant Improvements in Social Interactions

“We recognize that the design of this study makes it challenging to tease out the separate effects of the group experience, the nature experience, and the withdrawal of screen-time, but it is likely that the augmentation of in-person communication necessitated by the absence of digital communication significantly contributed to the observed experimental effect," writes Uhls. The reality of the matter is that people are steadily decreasing their offline activity as we become more and more dependent on the small bricks of metal and glass in our pockets. Experiments like Uhls' suggest that the relationships children share with screens and electronics may be impairing their abilities to socially interact with others.

Date of original publication:
Updated on: October 23, 2015


Yalda T. Uhls, Minas Michikyan, Jordan Morris, Debra Garcia, Gary W. Small, Eleni Zgourou. Five Days At Outdoor Education Camp Without Screens Improves Preteen Skills With Nonverbal Emotion Cues. Computers in Human Behavior, October 2014; DOI: 10.1016/j.chb.2014.05.036