by Chelsea Boccagno
Imagine yourself in your room, waiting for your friend to come by. He soon enters wearing a yellow cap with dark purple splotches that you find absolutely horrendous. You might instinctively gasp, or widen your eyes. Even worse, he may ask your opinion, and he’ll know from your unconvincing tone that you’re lying when you say you like it. Now imagine that friend sending you a picture of the hat through an online chat. Unable to see or hear you, he can’t know your initial reaction. When he asks your opinion, he won’t know from your typed sentence (“I like it!”) that you actually despise it. It’s obvious that face-to-face communication differs from online interaction: when online, you can’t hear the person’s voice or see any facial expression (and therefore must assume people’s emotions through their use of emoticons or, say, the caps lock button). Regardless, both children and adults use home computers as a frequent means of communication. Yet children are still undergoing social development. Does Internet communication then impact a child’s social growth and understanding of others?
According to a 2005 Kaiser Family Foundation survey, American children between ages 2-17 spend more time using screen media than participating in any other chosen activity, including outside play (Rideout, 2005). Additionally, enhanced access to the home computer increases the child’s total amount of screen time (video games, television, etc.), resulting in decreased face-to-face interaction (Stanger & Gridina, 1999). Modern children just aren’t going to the playground anymore. They might consequently satisfy their urge to interact with others by playing computer games, or having an online conversation. But for children, play has social benefits such as learning how to share and cooperate. Therefore increased indoor time might negatively affect children’s social competence regardless of whether they’re talking to others online.
Besides impacting face-to-face playtime duration, computer interaction may alter the way in which children emotionally understand others. A recent New York Times article expresses concern about technological interaction destroying the intimacy and emotional feedback of face-to-face communication.
In addition to online conversation stripping away visual and auditory social cues, it allows us to conceal our emotions or come across in a way we don’t mean to, such as appearing angry when using capitals. We might even have a different “online personality” (e.g. someone who uses excessive periods may falsely seem solemn). Though a child would first have to understand emotions like anger or seriousness in order to identify them, might the child partially obtain this understanding through internet language techniques and — something they can easily identify —emoticons (smiling faces, crying faces, etc.)?
Empathy, the ability to identify with someone’s emotions, thoughts and behavior, keeps humans connected. If we were unable to emotionally relate to others, we’d never understand their actions or intent; we wouldn’t form stable attachments, which require sensitivity and responsiveness to how someone is feeling. Empathy is therefore fundamental to understanding others, and this understanding is crucial for our survival as social beings. To examine whether computer interaction might affect how children develop empathy, we must look at how it is acquired.
One cue, facial expressions, is critical to social understanding. According to psychologist Jukka Leppänen (2011), emotion perception isn’t innate but learned, and continues to develop throughout late childhood and early adolescence. The interpretation of facial expressions isn’t tied to a specific point in development and is thus modifiable by later experiences (Leppänen, 2011). We can then infer that the discrimination of vocal tones is also learned. Unfortunately, the specific duration and type of experience needed for optimal development is unknown. But what we can take from this is that we do not possess a full sense of empathy from birth; its development extends well into childhood. Children who use the Internet will of course have other means of interaction, through their caregiver and/or schooling (which incorporates play). However, it’s important to look at how a child experiencing both forms of communication (face-to-face and online) may develop a nuanced form of empathy.
Similar to the way one’s culture influences how one empathizes, perhaps Internet interaction — an unnatural and less intimate form of communication —
shapes a child’s sense of empathy. Would, for example, a child’s perception of someone having two personalities (online vs. physical) change the way in which the child values and connects to the other person through either or both media? Do emoticons play a role in a child’s perception of emotion? Does the potential incongruence of an emoticon and perceived textual emoticon (e.g. “I’m going to beat you up =)”) result in a child’s skewed understanding of facial cues? If so, would this cause social problems, since misreading facial expressions is related to social anxiety in children?
In what way do the reduced social cues through online communication affect one’s social development, and does this nuance hinder our formation of attachment? Will it increase aggression, or social inhibition? These are questions that future research must address for a broadened understanding of the impact online interaction has on a child’s social development.
Clark, C. (2011, March 31). Misreading faces tied to child social anxiety. ScienceDaily. Retrieved from http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/03/110331103957.htm
Leppänen, J.M. (2011). Neural and developmental bases of the ability to recognize social signals of emotions. Emotion Review, 3, 179-188.
Rideout, V.J. (2007, June). Parents, children & media: A Kaiser Family Foundation survey. The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation. Retrieved from http://www.kff.org/entmedia/7638.cfm
Stanger, J.D., & Gridina, N. Media in the home 1999: The fourth annual survey of parents and children. Washington: The Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania, 1999.
Stout, H. (2010, April 30). Antisocial networking? The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/02/fashion/02BEST.html?pagewanted=all