Tweens who spend more time with multimedia describe themselves as less happy and socially comfortable than their peers, sparking debate on whether an increasingly digital lifestyle is healthy for children.
The Stanford University’s peer-reviewed study found that girls aged 8 to 12 who spend considerable time online with multimedia describe themselves in terms that suggest they aren’t as happy or as socially comfortable as those who spend less time on screens. The university researchers acknowledge the online responses were self-reported, may not be representative of the larger population, and invite further follow-up, but the information lends insight in an area with little understanding.
The study didn’t determine whether the heavy use of media was the cause for the relative unhappiness or whether girls who are less happy to begin with are drawn to heavy use of media. Still, the researchers hypothesize heavy media use is a contributing factor to social maladjustment because young people’s increasing use of mobile devices for communication doesn’t include exposure to body language, facial expressions, and other social cues that are vital to meaningful exchanges.
“Humans are built to notice these cues — the quavering in your voice, perspiration, body posture, raise of an eyebrow, a faint smile or frown,” said Clifford Nass, a Stanford professor of communication who led the study. Social media, he added, leaves the conversation two-dimensional, and so the participants often aren’t getting these messages.
Last summer, a national survey by Relationship Australia found that 30 percent of respondents aged 25 to 34 — the most connected to social networks — reported they were frequently lonely, far higher than any other age group. And, that number rose to 42 percent for those who use four or more methods of technology.
Social media users are likely unaware of how Twitter and Facebook often discourage engaging interaction. They may think they’re socializing on these sites, but, in fact, they’re just exchanging superficial updates and sharing photos, rather than maintaining and deepening relationships.
Medical personnel are also aware of the correlation. Last year, doctors began to diagnose “Facebook Depression,” treating increasing incidents of debilitating emotional distress linked to social network use.
Also, fewer people use their smartphones for conversation, opting instead to use social media on the portable devices, which combined with the recent surge in tablet devices for streaming media and entertainment, signals that the digital interactive experience has arrived before a better understanding of its implications.
While the outward behavior of tweens using multiple devices to communicate ideas, updates, videos, and music seems like a deepening of those activities, at the core, the individuals involved may remain very inwardly alone.
The research was based on an online survey of about 80 questions answered by 3,461 girls found by advertising in Discovery Girls magazine. The average amount of media use by the girls surveyed was 6.9 hours per day, and the average amount of time spent in face-to-face social settings was 2.1 hours.
The Stanford study was published last week in Developmental Psychology, a journal published by the American Psychological Association, as part of a series of articles on interactive technology and human development. There is no companion study about how screen time affects boys.