Psychology in the News

January 18, 2012

Is screen time ruining our face time?

Filed under: culture, development — intro2psych @ 10:10 pm

by Chelsea Boccagno

Everett and Monroe share screen time by cafemama

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

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

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


  1. When reading this post, I couldn’t help but to consider technologies like Skype or Apple’s FaceTime for the iPhone. I am curious whether these advances are beneficial in restoring some sense of face-to-face interaction through electronic media, or if they will ultimately leave us more indebted to electronic communication and further stunt time spent in the physical company of others. I want to believe that Skype and FaceTime are ultimately beneficial to human interaction – forcing us to pay attention to visual cues when talking with one another over the Internet rather than relying on the careful placement of emoticons – and may help shy adolescents grow more comfortable making friends, but a future where these technologies qualify as “face time” seems rather bleak indeed.

    Comment by Matthew Allan — January 29, 2012 @ 2:51 pm

  2. I think it is necessary for children to interact with one another face-to-face. As helpful as technology has been in allowing us to connect with each other across great distances, it was meant to supplement our relationships with other people, not replace them. I feel that when I hang out with my best friend, I get to connect with her in a much more personal way. I know how she’s feeling by a certain facial expression, her body language, or the tone of her voice, etc. Now that we go to different colleges, if we chat online, I don’t feel that connection as well. It is always much better when we video Skype because at least we get to respond to each other’s faces and voices, though it is still not the same as being in the same room.

    Comment by Elizabeth Ngo — February 1, 2012 @ 8:34 pm

  3. Are all forms of online communication positively correlated with decreased social development or can you communicate online in some ways with no negative impact on social development. Texting doesn’t involve much face-to-face interaction so it naturally doesn’t help teens learn to pick up visual and audio cues in a social context, but what can be said of video chatting and social competence?

    A group of Stanford researchers in a recent study posed a related question: how does media use centered around interpersonal interaction and non-interpersonal interaction relate to indicators of social well-being in adolescent girls. In the study all forms of media use, including video chatting, correlate with negative feelings of social well-being and a lack of social success. So, according to their evidence, even video chatting doesn’t help an adolescent’s sense of social well-being.

    With the advent of new technologies that enable more convenient, affordable and sophisticated means of communication will how online communication affects social development change. The ways in which children can communicate with each other has changed vastly over the last twenty years. According to most recent studies it is implied that adolescents using online communication are not becoming more socially competent than those who grew up without them, but these studies were heavily based off kids who made heavy use of text chatting which is a communication tool that may become less appealing in the future. People can communicate online in more ways now than ever and each of these patterns of communication likely has specific effects on social development. If given more ways of communicating online, maybe adolescents can still turn out feeling socially successful. Adolescents meeting a person across the world on chat roulette, communicating in an all text based chat room with friends, or video chatting with three family members at once will all be socially stimulated in different ways. And as technology progresses, each might turn out to be more socially simulating. Regardless of this debate, future studies must account for this variety of interpersonal online communication that is becoming increasingly available to the public if they are to successfully draw a casual relationship between online communication and social development.


    Stober, D. (2012, January 25). Multitasking may harm the social and emotional development of tweenage girls, but face-to-face talks could save the day, say Stanford researchers. StanfordNews.
    Retrieved from:

    Comment by Evan Herdrich — February 11, 2012 @ 4:10 pm

  4. Because of this negative impact on child development caused by excessive screen time, would you suggest replacing electronic communication with face-to-face meetings, or improving the technology to better convey emotion? Does texting really replace that much “real” conversation, or does it do more to supplement daily conversations, making people more accessible to each other? I would argue that connecting people through cell phones actually creates more opportunity to interact (when convenient, as opposed to the struggle of literally meeting), and therefore improves social development. Of course there will be miscommunication and ambiguous emotions when texting, but this develops social skill in a different way, teaching clarity of written language, and not hurting verbal communication skills or the ability to empathize.

    Comment by Charlene Button — February 20, 2012 @ 10:50 pm

  5. I can definitely relate to this. Although I definitely prefer face to face interaction, I sometimes feel more comfortable talking to someone online or through text. I think for some people who have shy personalities, they feel “safer” behind the screen in a sense. I agree that this can lead to “two personalities” — I know a few people who are willing to say almost anything through a text (again, perhaps because they feel “safer” behind their phones), but are extremely shy in person.

    I don’t think this is to much of a problem for the younger part of that age group (say, for those between the ages of 2-10). Perhaps I am wrong and someone can offer a different view, but I would venture to guess that kids in that age range still get the majority of their social interactions face-to-face. They are too young to be using computers for extended periods of time, and the majority of kids that age don’t have cell phones (though that is sadly changing into todays times). I think the biggest problem lies in the teenage group. For kids in that age range, I think it’s a simply a matter of being more convenient to communicate through a screen. For example, if a group of kids wanted to study together 20 years ago, they most likely had to meet up somewhere and interact face to face. In 2012, they have little incentive to do so as studying together is as easy as logging on to Facebook or Gmail. Although kids still see each other at school, I don’t think that makes up for the excessive amounts of time spent communicating in ways other than one that is face-to-face.

    I do think emoticons and expressions (like “lol”) help convey certain meanings. Even if you type in all caps, a emoticon such as :-P or :-) often, though not always, indicates one is joking. That being said, it is obviously no substitute for live interaction and the probability that something is misconstrued when communicating through a screen is still quite high. Even if we leave aside the ability to understand and convey emotions, I think overall knowing how to speak effectively and confidently face-face is an important real-world skill to have. It appears that this skill is declining among the teenage population as new ways to communicate through a screen continue to pop up. This could potentially hurt that generation as they enter the “real world” and are forced to speak in front of large groups at some point in their careers.

    Comment by Jasdeep Achreja — February 26, 2012 @ 8:08 pm

  6. Nowadays, society is dependent on technology. Children as young as 5 years olds have cell phones and laptops. Children interact through many social networking sites, texting, and instant messaging. Children are not gaining proper social skills when they spend more time at the computer than outside playing. Not only does it lower your social ability, but technology keeps children inside the house, when exercising outside keeps your child healthier and happier. Technology can be good for keeping in touch with long distance friends and also to gain quick and useful information, but the overuse can be damaging for the development of a child.

    Comment by Ava — February 26, 2012 @ 9:22 pm

  7. I feel one of the biggest issues with internet communication over face to face communication is the inability to see how the person your talking to is actually reacting to the things you are saying. The example in this post about the friend with the ugly hat is one example of this. Not only that but when you talk to someone you are able to gauge their answers by facial expressions, body language, and certain tendencies they have when they lie or are not being completely truthful. Over the internet this added aspect to conversation is completely removed. This can really change the way people react with others. Sarcasm and other types of speech are also lost via internet communication. I do not know to what level internet communication is hurting the ability of people to read facial expressions, and understand certain cues, but there definitely is a difference in the way people communicate in person than they do online. However if someone is able to convey the same message across the web that they are when they talk to you in person than that should be looked at as a positive feature. Technology is increasing at a steady rate, and internet communication is becoming a big part of society. Someone who is able to come off as intelligent, and sincere, as well as having the ability to entwine their own personality into text is one that has the ability to succeed in life. People will have to be able to master internet conversations, as well as be able to pick up on certain facets of conversation that are not present in contact over the computer. It is those people who are able to understand and utilize computer interactions, as well as face to face conversations that will be the most rounded, and have the ability to interact with the most people, those who stick to computer, as well as those who feel a sense of intimacy in a face to face conversation.

    Comment by Alex Snyder — February 27, 2012 @ 8:57 pm

  8. I find the most debilitating side effect of too much screen time for kids is their lack of social input. I know many kids who feel much safer in the confines of their virtual world, whether it be online games or chatrooms/forums. And while computer use offers access to various groups and ideas, it’s not a fully-formed interaction. If kids are becoming increasingly accustomed to instant access to information or instant voicing of their ideas without going through the actual motions of discussion and interaction, then it will ultimately cripple them later in adulthood. I recently read a book for my Asian Studies class about post-WWII era Japan and how a new generation of Japanese children exile themselves to their rooms with their computers in response to the pressures from their society. As a result, many of these kids refuse to go to school or exhibit horribly violent outbursts in the classroom and at home. While this is just an isolated case, I think we could all benefit from safeguarding children (and ourselves, really) from excessive computer use.

    Comment by Nancy — March 8, 2012 @ 7:17 pm

  9. One thing to keep in mind is the ever increasing opportunity for kids to interact virtually, and what that means for this trend. Sure we are all nostalgic for the playdates of old, but with videochatting and other advances, it might just be a new era being ushered in. Instead of meeting people in person, kids might meet in virtual playrooms and global meetings might occur in virtual conference rooms, the latter already beginning. While I do not personally prefer this idea, I think social context should be considered.

    Comment by Michael Haugbro — May 1, 2012 @ 9:46 pm

  10. Some may say that if a child is able to talk to several different people online then it may help him in the real world in real-life group conversations. I totally disagree. I have heard of extreme scenarios where people live double lives. They are a totally different person online than they are in the real world. They appear extraverted online but are shy and incapable of holding conversations with new people for very long. In this sense, the internet acts as a protective shield, a safe-guard instead of a healthy social environment. No one learns if they are given a safe- outlet all the time, especially children. Children will never learn to cope on their own if every time they are stressed they seek the comfort of their parents (secure base).

    Comment by Sascha Magnus — May 9, 2012 @ 10:15 pm

  11. I agree with comments made by a few people above as far as the dangers of using the internet as a shield. The post mentioned that some people develop an “online personality,” and that is something I have definitely observed in my own life. People who have difficulty communicating or connecting with others face-to-face often have a much easier time doing so online. This would be a good thing — if the social prowess developed online translated into the rest of an individual’s life. However, this is rarely the case. As Evan Herdrich described in the Standford study, media use absolutely does not improve feelings of social well-being, and the gap between online life and everything else just keeps getting bigger and bigger.

    Comment by Jacqueline Krass — September 22, 2012 @ 4:23 pm

  12. Though I think using emoticons and expressions helps a lot in avoiding misunderstandings, if we become too dependent on those forms of expressing and “reading” emotion, it may even hinder our ability to read non-verbal cues when talking face to face. Even if children were to use Skype or FaceTime where they can see other’s nonverbal reactions, actively playing and interacting with others is crucial not only for physical health, but development of social skills. Children can’t learn social concepts, such as personal space for example, by communicating through technology, no matter how interactive the technology is.

    Comment by Psych 105 student — October 10, 2012 @ 5:34 pm

  13. I think that there is definitely something to be said about this very digital generation, and it’s capacity to connect in the same ways that have been accepted for so long. At the same time however, I think the technology available makes communication that much easier, and though actual face to face time might be limited, time spent communicating can be increased greatly. Though it can be argued that “online personalities” can be misleading, I still think that today’s youth (or at least in my experience) has been able to balance time spent on the computer with time spent socializing in the real world. I think we are very much a generation that has grown up in the time where technology has reached new heights, and it might be different for children being born now and being thrust into the current level of computerized life. I also feel that computers and other devices, if used right, can be beneficial to child development with the implementation of certain programs in schools, etc. and that the benefits of the technology in this day and age should not be overlooked.

    Comment by A.J. (Alexander) Cincotta-Eichenfield — October 11, 2012 @ 4:44 pm

  14. Part of the essence of being human is being able to come across other people and understanding their facial expressions, personality, and feelings. However, the more we rely on the Internet to act as a mediator between us, the more we lose our sense of understanding. Face to face interactions give us a chance to show our true being, as opposed to online interactions, that allow us to alter our personality and take on an alter ego.

    In addition, we need to establish connections between each other to be able to distinguish between humans and animals. The less time we have with face-to-face interactions, the more desensitized we are to human feelings.

    Comment by Solomon Ajasin — October 11, 2012 @ 5:23 pm

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    Comment by — October 16, 2012 @ 8:57 pm

  16. I agree with many of the above comments because the topic has so many positive and negative affects on society. I think that the key here depends on the extent of use for such technology and what exactly we use it for. Of course it is beneficial for skype-ing with your grandmother that lives across the country, but technology also plays bad-guy when it comes to cyber-bullying and aggression on social media connections. As Jasdeep commented earlier, people tend to “feel safer behind the screen” and this is where the alter-ego’s can step in. Along the lines of other technology and its effects on the younger generations, it is obvious how internet, phones, videogames, and more can lock kids up indoors and keep them from interacting with other children as they grow and develop. Crucial communication skills like conflict-resolution, public-speaking, and mediation are being lost because technology has become an addiction for many people, young or old. When we judge technology, we should base our opinions off of the moderation of technological use in our lives and see how it is positively or negatively affecting our daily-life interactions.

    Comment by Arisa Gereda — December 2, 2012 @ 2:31 pm

  17. I actually believe this specific blog post , “Is screen time
    ruining our face time? | Psychology in the News”, really pleasurable not to mention the blog post
    was indeed a very good read. Regards,Mavis

    Comment by — January 23, 2013 @ 8:01 pm

  18. There is an interesting opposite side to the one expressed in this blog post that I have observed, of people who make better connections with people over the internet because of less social pressure than they face in the real world. Perhaps, this study is buying into the social stigma that is present when we think about internet communication and invalidate it. Often people who communicate via the internet may be introverted or shy to begin with and even those who grew up in a time where we didn’t have the advanced technology that we have today had a hard time socializing. They find it as an alternate pressure free social environment, based off of their words and online persona and not the cultural stereotypes we form of a person when we see them face to face. While on one hand I understand the danger of children not going outside to play and learning basic social skills I think there is an interesting counter argument for the internet in terms of socialization that this post leaves out. We are also experiencing the phenomena in which people can be connected to those they’ve known for a very long time thanks to social media. I wonder how the increasing number of people one can be continually connected to throughout their life will affect socialization, more than the lack of face to face interaction.

    Comment by Pilar Jefferson — February 28, 2013 @ 11:36 pm

  19. This is definitely an important issue facing our generation today since so much interaction is done over the computer now. I find that the best option is to have a healthy balance of both screen and face time. Over the internet we can connect with people all over the world in a social environment that isn’t as stressful as the real world. On the other hand, face time is what helps to strengthen our social skills and makes our relationships with other people more intimate. Each side has it’s positives and negatives so to ensure that one does not ruin the other, it’s important for us to find our place in both worlds.

    Comment by Psych 105 Student — March 8, 2013 @ 2:15 am

    • I think it must be noted that networking in text-based mediums is hardly unprecedented for young children. Adolescents have communicated through print since the advent of modern postage, not to mention through essays, notes, ect. So while the frequency with which they now do so via social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter has skyrocketed, it’s important to bear in mind that the skill set (interpreting faceless cues and expressions) is hardly novel. The question then becomes, are these technologies really desocializing, or are children being prepared for a new era in which text-based communication will play a larger role in human interaction than it has traditionally?

      Comment by Luke — May 6, 2013 @ 3:28 pm

      • Good point about the written word–I think we often forget the similarities between letters and electronically based communication. It seems that people are worried that electronic communication will become a replacement for human interaction, rather than seeing it as the supplemental thing it is. I have never found myself seeking out online communication with someone I have never spoken with personally. Written communication is hardly absent of emotional indicators, and while some may say it is easier to lie, it is also easier to tell the truth.

        Comment by Kate Finney — May 21, 2013 @ 4:22 pm

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