TIME Family

Why Access to Screens Is Lowering Kids’ Social Skills

Brothers Watching TV
Chris Stein—Getty Images

Kids read emotions better after being deprived of electronic media

People have long suspected that there’s a cost to all this digital data all the time, right at our fingertips. Now there’s a study out of UCLA that might prove those digital skeptics right. In the study, kids who were deprived of screens for five days got much better at reading people’s emotions than kids who continued their normal screen-filled lives.

The California research team’s findings, published in the journal Computers in Human Behavior this month tries to analyze the impact digital media has on humans’ ability to communicate face-to-face.

As an experiment, 51 sixth graders from a public school in Southern California were sent to outdoor education camp, spending five whole days completely deprived of TV, phone and Internet. Contrary to the kids’ expectations, they survived just fine and actually had genuine fun.

The first pool of kids was then compared to another group of 54 sixth graders from the same school who had not yet attended the camp, but had spent the previous five days with their normal amount of screen time.

Both sets of students were given photos of people expressing emotions—sadness, anger, joy, anxiety and so on, before the camp and after the camp. Both sets of students were also shown video of people interacting and displaying emotions. The students who had been to camp got much better at discerning how the people in the photos and the videos were feeling after that five day period. They scored much higher at recognizing non-verbal emotional cues (facial expressions, body language, gestures) than they had before the camp, while the scores of the students who had not been deprived of screens did not change at all.

With online training courses being used for almost everything now, this new study may give teachers, parents and administrators pause on such widespread use of digital media in education. “Many people are looking at the benefits of digital media in education, and not many are looking at the costs,” said Patricia M. Greenfield, a distinguished professor of psychology at UCLA and senior author of the study. “Decreased sensitivity to emotional cues is one of the costs—understanding the emotions of other people. The displacement of in-person social interaction by screen interaction seems to be reducing social skills.”

Lead author Yalda T. Uhls, a senior researcher with the Children’s Digital Media Center, said she hopes that people won’t merely take away the idea that all screens are bad, but that face-to-face time for young people is an important part of the socialization process.

According to a survey given to the study’s participants, the kids spent an average of four-and-a-half hours texting, watching television and playing video games during a single typical school day. According to Uhls, this is on the low end–many children and teenagers spend more than seven-and-a-half-hours a day interacting with a screen of some sort. And when interacting with a screen, they aren’t interacting with a human.

“You can’t learn non-verbal emotional cues from a screen in the way you can learn it from face-to-face communication,” Uhls said.

MONEY consumer psychology

Hey, Impulse Spenders: Here’s a Solution to Your Bad Habit

shopping bags
Martin Barraud—Getty Images

If you make too many impulse purchases and later regret them, there is a simple cure: gratitude.

A study recently published in Psychological Science shows that an attitude of gratitude tempers impulsive urges. In the study, participants had the option of receiving $54 now or $80 in a month. The researchers then induced moods of happiness, neutrality, or gratitude. Participants in the happy or neutral groups preferred the smaller sum immediately—the typical response in delayed gratification experiments.

The surprise came from those who felt grateful. They preferred to wait for the larger sum, which is the smarter, if less immediately gratifying, option.

The authors don’t say why gratitude forestalls impulsiveness, but their findings make sense within the context of my own research. I’ve found that people typically purchase impulsively for one of two reasons. They do so 1) to counteract a sense of emptiness, boredom, or void in their lives; or 2) because they are not fully focused when making a purchase. Gratitude can be the antidote in both of these scenarios.

Fill the Void
Impulsively snapping up a bargain or a trinket (or more) can provide an emotional boost, even a genuine momentary thrill. A void you feel—which can range in magnitude from simple boredom to a deep emotional need for human connection—is temporarily filled in the act. Sometimes the pleasure of some new “find,” or just the distraction of the transaction is subconsciously more what people are shopping for than whatever it is that’s actually being purchased.

People that “fill up” with impulsive purchases in this manner are often thought to be motivated by simple greed. What I’ve found, though, is that the catalyst is not so much greed or materialism, but emotional relief. Momentary lapses of impulse control are frequently fueled by an urge to feel something different—to get out of a funk and change your mood.

Feelings of gratitude, not just for possessions, but for almost anything—a friendly encounter, a cool breeze, a tasty lunch, a nice text from your kid, a beautiful landscape—are nourishing. It’s harder to feel a void or sense of emptiness when you pause and notice how much you have. It makes sense that everyone, not just shoppers, exhibit greater levels of impulse control when they feel thankful.

Get in Focus
Consumers’ minds nowadays are drawn in different directions by nonstop multitasking, and anxiety and sleep deficiencies are on the rise as a result. Focused decision-making, particularly on seemingly non-urgent tasks such as shopping, is on the decline, as is truly focusing on anything, it seems. No wonder I increasingly hear, “What was I thinking when I bought this?” from shoppers I interview. An exhausted, distracted brain pays less attention to everything and therefore has less bandwidth to forestall impulsive purchasing.

The calming focus of gratitude can help. A few seconds of thankfulness is not only a mood elevator, it’s a fast and simple mindfulness exercise that improves focus and can stave off mindless, impulsive spending.

But if you’re trying to rein in impulse spending, wouldn’t it make more sense to simply force yourself to pay closer attention to purchases, rather than trying to focus on feelings of gratitude? Well, no. Focusing on purchases is actually harder than it seems. Why? It’s boring when compared to the thrill of the purchase, and therefore consumers are apt to forget they’re supposed to be mindful and think twice about what they’re buying.

Also, paying close attention to purchases comes with the possibility of arousing negative emotions—feelings concerning problems with debt or budgeting, or pressures about responsibility and what you should or should not do. Our self-protective, irrational brains are likely to look for an easy “out” to get rid of these bad feelings, ironically often by simply losing focus and doing things mindlessly, impulsively. That’s why so many consumers experience a mismatch between their good intentions and ultimate actions when it comes to shopping.

Gratitude is a gentle way to force focus, and it creates a sense of abundance that transcends the need for a momentary shopping boost. As a bonus, there are lots of other benefits to feeling and expressing gratitude—most notably, happiness.

_____________________________________________________

Kit Yarrow, Ph.D., is a consumer psychologist who is obsessed with all things related to how, when and why we shop and buy. She conducts research through her professorship at Golden Gate University and shares her findings in speeches, consulting work, and her books, Decoding the New Consumer Mind and Gen BuY.

TIME Social Media

Manipulate Your Own Mood, Before Facebook Does

Lauren McCarthy

But how do you mute engagement photos?

The uproar following the news that Facebook had manipulated the emotions of some of its users by curating the posts they saw in their newsfeed according to specific emotions was understandable. We like to believe that our social networks are indifferent platforms that don’t play with our feelings the way our friends can. In reality, Facebook strictly controls every factor of its website’s experience—it’s far from impartial.

So why not take control into our own hands? Artist Lauren McCarthy’s Facebook Mood Manipulator gives you access to the same technology that the study used to control its subjects emotions. A sliding scale on the website allows users to select what kinds of posts they want, with factors including positive, emotional, aggressive, and open. Turn the positive slide all the way up, and all that appears are happy posts. Turn it down, and negativity replaces all the good vibes.

McCarthy’s app suggests a kind of self-censoring. If you’re feeling down, then maybe you don’t want to see anything sad in your feed. Sure, the app performs a neat trick by scanning posts for emotive keywords and filtering them based on that vocabulary, but it also has a deeper meaning. It shows just how much our lives are contingent on what we experience online—we’re not communicating on social networks so much as living through them.

TIME Social Media

Calm Down: Facebook Isn’t Manipulating Your Emotions

Yes, they played with your News Feeds. Yes, that’s creepy. But here’s why you shouldn’t be so shocked and upset

Have you heard that you might have been Facebook’s guinea pig? That the company, working with some scientists, fiddled around with 698,003 people’s News Feeds in January 2012 and tried to make the users feel sadder (or happier) by manipulating what members read?

Shocked? Violated? Creeped out? Well, be prepared to be even more shocked, violated and creeped out. Because what Facebook did was scientifically acceptable, ethically allowable and, let’s face it, probably among the more innocuous ways that you’re being manipulated in nearly every aspect of your life.

First things first. The researchers didn’t “make” users feel sadder or happier. What they did was make it more or less likely for them to see posts that contained either slightly more negative language or slightly more positive language. Overall, those who had emotionally charged messages hidden from their News Feed used fewer words when posting, and those who did see emotional words tended to reflect the tone of their feeds when they posted. But there’s a difference between using, as the study found, one more negative word per 1,000 in a week of posts, and what psychologists would call feeling sad or depressed.

Adam Kramer of Facebook, one of the study’s co-authors, posted on an apology of sorts, for the way the study was presented. “My co-authors and I are very sorry for the way the paper described the research and any anxiety it caused,” he wrote.

But the study is not without value, says Dr. Nicholas Christakis, director of the Human Nature Lab at Yale University who has studied emotional contagion across social networks. “The scientific concerns that have been raised are mostly without merit,” he says. He points out that while the positivity or negativity of words may not be a validated measure of mood, the fact that the study found similar effects in both directions – people were affected in similar ways when the number of negative and positive words were manipulated in their feeds – suggests emotional contagion on social media is, indeed, real.

Concerns about people’s privacy being violated by the experiment may also be unwarranted. First, Facebook users know that their data is no longer exclusively their own once it’s on the site. And the whole premise of News Feed is that it’s a curated glance at the most appealing or engaging updates your network of friends might post. That’s why the Cornell University Institutional Review Board (IRB), which reviews and approves all human research studies conducted by its members, gave the experiment the green light. They determined that the study posed minimal risk of disrupting people’s normal environments or behavior, and therefore waived the need for getting informed consent from each participant (something that IRBs routinely do for studies involving medical records, prison records and educational information as long as the scientists maintain the anonymity of the owners of the data).

Should the 698,003 users have been told once the study was done? Perhaps, but only out of courtesy, and not for any legal or ethical reasons. “Certain items weren’t shown to people in their News Feed,” says James Fowler, professor of medical genetics and political science at University of California San Diego, who has collaborated with Christakis and has spoken with Facebook about the company’s research. “This sounds like something that happens to people ordinarily. As a consequence, I’m having a hard time understanding why people are so upset.”

“Things that happen to you that you aren’t aware of can be scary to people,” says Fowler. That could explain why, despite the fact that Fowler and Christakis conducted a similar intervention by seeding Facebook users’ accounts with messages from friends asking them to vote at an election, they weren’t accused of manipulating people in the same way. “It’s fascinating to me that everyone is piling on [this study] when we have already done it,” Fowler says of tweaking people’s social network to see how it influences their reactions.

It’s not that anyone condones the fact that we’re being studied and analyzed all the time (the fact that you clicked on this story was recorded by this site’s administrators, as well as how long you’re taking to read it to see if posts like these are appealing).

But if social networks are here to stay, and if, as many intriguing studies suggest, they do have some influence on the way we act and think, then it’s worth trying to figure out how they do it.

“I wouldn’t want the public outcry to shut down the science,” says Fowler. “I would much rather study it and understand it than stick my head in the sand and avoid the issue altogether.”

TIME behavior

These Goosebump Sensors Can Read Your Emotions

The Goose Bump Detector is a goose bump monitoring sensor attached to the arm. Young-Ho Cho/KAIST

Sounds crazy right? Read on

South Korean researchers are developing a technology that can measure your goosebumps—which are activated when you’re cold, sure, but also when you’re scared, moved or otherwise emotionally aroused. It sounds weird until you consider the potential applications for such a thing, some of which are fascinating while others seem unsettling when it comes to emotional privacy.

A team of scientists at KAIST in Daejeon, South Korea have developed a very thin sticker-like sensor that can easily be applied to the skin. The wearable 20mm x 20mm polymer sensor measures goosebumps, and the researchers believe it provides insight into human’s emotional states.

Although the sensors are still in early development, the team believes they could provide insight into physical and emotional responses so that they can determine how people experience and react to the world around them. This could help lead the way to personalized music streams and advertising, the researchers suggest in a statement. “In the future, human emotions will be regarded like any typical biometric information, including body temperature or blood pressure,” study author Young-Ho Cho said.

Social media sites like Facebook are already tapping into what the site perceives as your interests in order to curate advertising targeted just for you. Analyzing your emotions would take that kind of monitoring to a whole new level. Emotion sensing is something retailers are interested in, and companies like 3VR are rolling out initiatives like “big data video-mining,” which uses video cameras that can estimate the age, gender, and mood shoppers as they pass through a given store.

But what can goosebumps tell us? The obvious reason we get goosebumps is that it’s a biological method to combat chills. Goosebumps occur when tiny muscles attached to each of our hairs contract, and the areas surrounding that contraction rises. In animals with a lot of fur, this retains heat. We don’t have a lot of fur, so it doesn’t exactly serve the same purpose for us—but it does clue us into when our bodies are at an uncomfortable level.

When it comes to getting goosebumps while watching a sad or inspiring movie, it’s a little more evolutionarily confusing, but researchers think it’s because we release the stress hormone adrenaline when we feel strong emotions, and that hormone can trigger goosebumps to rise. “This response is an evolutionary holdover from our primate ancestors. Those ancestors had long hair that stood out when those tiny muscles contracted, making the individual look larger and usually more fierce when something threatening or scary occurred,” says Dr. Rick Potts, director of the human origins program at the Smithsonian Institution. “There was an evolutionary advantage for our ancestors, but for us, the advantage has disappeared—though we retain the impulse of those tiny muscles contracting just beneath the skin.”

The research is published in the journal Applied Physics Letters and it’s still preliminary. But knowing there’s a market for understanding your emotions is enough to give us goosebumps.

TIME emotions

QUIZ: How Well Can You Read Expressions?

Most of us can distinguish the subtle difference between sadly fearful and sadly surprised

Scientists have long believed that there are six major ways we express emotion on our faces, but the latest study shows we readily make, and recognize, up to 21 distinct expressions. Test your skill in figuring out the feeling behind these faces.

TIME

Human Faces Can Express at Least 21 Distinct Emotions

Happily surprised Image courtesy of The Ohio State University.

Distinct facial muscles were used to express compound emotions

Leading scientific thinkers of their time, such as Aristotle, Rene Descartes, Guillaume Duchenne, and Charles Darwin, have long promoted the idea that there are a handful of basic emotions that people express. In recent decades, that group has crystalized into six core emotions: happiness, surprise, sadness, anger, fear, and disgust.

But there are clearly many shades of gray between those emotions. For example, there’s the happy-because-I’m-eating-ice cream and the happy-because-I-just-learned-I-got-a-surprise-marriage-proposal looks, each of which is slightly different.

That’s what intrigued Aleix Martinez, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering at Ohio State University. “Six seemed a small number given the rainbow of possibilities of feeling and expressing emotions,” he says.

MORE: Emotions May Not Be So Universal After All

Martinez wanted to know whether compound emotions, such as happy surprise, were expressed using the same muscle movements of both happiness and surprise, or whether the expression involved a unique set of muscles that represented some amalgam of the two.

What he and his colleagues found was that the human face makes 21 different emotional expressions – and each is different from the other. While some represented combinations of emotions, each differed in terms of which muscles were involved.

And surprisingly, these facial expression patterns were remarkably consistent across all 230 volunteers. For example, each showed happy surprise in the same way that was distinct from both happiness and from surprise, and different still from angry surprise.

MORE: To Really Read Emotions, Look at Body Language, Not Facial Expressions

Martinez broke down the facial expressions of 230 volunteers by applying his engineering strategies. He and his colleagues gave each of the students, staff, or faculty members who enrolled in the study different scenarios and asked them to show how they would react in each one. They were told, for example, that they had just learned they had been accepted to a graduate program, that someone had told them a disgusting, but still funny joke, or that they had just smelled something bad. The volunteers were allowed to practice their facial expressions in front of a mirror before Martinez took pictures of their reactions.

He then computer-analyzed each of the 5,000 images, breaking them down by which facial muscles the participants used. These were first defined in 1978 by psychologist Paul Ekman, who codified facial expressions in the Facial Action Coding System (FACS) by action units, or muscles or groups of muscles that went into making facial expressions – such as lip parts (for showing disgust), showing teeth (for expressing happiness), mouth stretch (for fear), or eyelid tightening (for anger).

MORE: How to Lift Your Mood? Try Smiling

Not only are people able to make compound expressions consistently, but we are also able to read these emotions pretty accurately as well. When we see someone who looks angrily surprised, for example, we know that they aren’t happy about whatever unexpected event they just experienced. “We don’t know for sure how much is learned or innate in expressing these emotions,” says Martinez. “But what we do know is that a big component has to be innate because otherwise different people would use different muscles to show the same emotion.”

The results dovetail with recent findings that some cultures may already recognize these more refined, and numerous expressions of emotions. In a study among the remote Himba tribes in Namibia, for example, researchers at Northeastern University reported that when they provided tribe members with images of facial expressions of emotions, rather than creating six neat piles of emotions, the members created many more. For them, happy could be interpreted as anything from happy to laughing to wonder.

That should help to improve how studies of human emotions are conducted in different cultures, says Martinez; his results suggest that the underlying ability to express emotions may be similar around the world, but cultural biases may simply define emotions in different ways – much the same way that babies are born with the capacity to speak and make sounds for any language, but are trained to speak their native tongue by what they hear around them.

Even more exciting for mental health experts is the possibility that this work can teach them about when the processing and expression of human emotions goes awry such as in depression. “It’s important to understand which are categories of emotions that we have,” says Martinez, so that experts can recognize the pathological ones. Expressing emotions is generally a transient exercise, lasting milliseconds or up to a minute. Those that linger longer, for hours or even days, tend to be considered moods, and once these emotions persist for days, weeks or months, they can become the subject of mental illness. So distinguishing how people express themselves, and defining the categories of well-known and well-recognized emotions, could lead to better understanding of which emotions can become detrimental and even harmful.

TIME

Being On Facebook Can Actually Make Us Happier

Facebook
Jason Alden—Bloomberg/Getty Images

It turns out social networking doesn't always make us sad and depressed, as a new study based on the virality of emotions between friends shows that positive emotions have stronger spreading power on Facebook than negative ones

We can’t help but check Facebook, even though studies suggest it can trigger feelings of envy, worsen our self-esteem, and make us feel lonely. Beyond the emotional, some studies link spending time on Facebook to eating disorders.

But maybe we’re focusing too much on the negative. It turns out that positive emotions have stronger spreading power on Facebook than negative ones, according to new research published in PLOS ONE. James Fowler, a professor of medical genetics and political science at University of California San Diego, has worked on previous social contagion studies, and found that things like obesity, smoking habits, happiness, loneliness, eating disorders, and even generosity spread among groups of friends. But in those cases, the participants had face-to-face contact with each other. “I had an expectation that we might not find [the same effect] online,” he says.

MORE: The Happiness Effect

He was wrong. Indeed, emotions spread across Facebook in the same way that we share secrets or dating tips–to a surprising extent, Fowler says. Analyzing data from 100 million Facebook users who posted nearly one billion updates between 2009 and 2012, Fowler and his colleagues showed that every emotion expressed online seeded one to two additional messages in the network expressing similar emotions, meaning the feeling was getting passed along. (Don’t worry, the scientists did not have access to any identifying information, and they didn’t even read the posts. They put the messages through a standard word classification system that coded the written words on a scale that ranged from negative to positive.)

Previous studies have linked rain to more negative feelings and thoughts, so Fowler and his team correlated rainfall to the emotional content of people’s messages. They could then determine whether a sunny day for one friend and a rainy day for another who lived miles away had any effect on their emotions. Indeed, if a friend is experiencing a sunny day and you’re deluged by rain, you’re more likely to feel a little happier – and express that in more positive posts. Contrary to the belief that Facebook makes us feel bad, the study showed that each additional positive post reduced the number of negative ones by friends by nearly two-fold, while each additional negative update lowered positive posts by 1.3 times. Though people may think of the Facebook experience as more negative than positive, overall, says Fowler, the data suggest that being on the social networking site is a positive thing, at least for our emotional state.

MORE: Feeling Alone Together: How Loneliness Spreads

“The online world has opened up the possibility that we are spreading emotions in a way they were never spread before,” Fowler says. “We are connected to our friend’s friends, to our friend’s friend’s friends, who are strangers in some cases, and while it’s possible that those interactions are just noise, that’s not what we found.”

But the trend also holds a potential dark side. “As we become more connected online, we are now experiencing emotions more like the emotions that people around the planet experience,” he says. That means that more people are more likely to be feeling the same emotion at the same time, potentially leading to higher highs and lower lows, and that may contribute to more volatility in several different arenas, from the social to the economic and political, since markets and politics are influenced by emotions. If people aren’t as connected, these emotional extremes can balance each other out: if you’re having a bad day, but you come home to family members who have had better days, you tend to feel better. But if more people in the world are feeling the same emotion at the same time, such equilibrium might be harder to achieve.

MORE: What Facebook and Twitter Reveal About Contagion

That, says Fowler, could be the subject of yet another social network experiment. If people become aware of how much their own emotions can have a ripple effect on Facebook, and the rest of the world, for instance, would they change their behavior and take more responsibility for what they express online? No man is an island, it seems, but Fowler argues that every man may be part of an archipelago, and social networks may help us understand how our interactions with others connect link us together to influence and change our behavior.

TIME

Emotions May Not Be So Universal After All

91165005
The Many Faces of Megan Simon Gerzina Photography—Getty Images/Flickr RF

Our current understanding of facial expressions could be specific to Western cultures

From a very young age, infants have a way of making their feelings known – contorted faces and howls indicate their displeasure with a meal or a damp diaper, a gummy smile their contentment, and a furrowed brow their puzzlement over a new discovery such as their thumb.

While it seems logical that these expressions are universal, the latest study suggests they may not be. In fact, expressions of the major emotions – happiness, sadness, anger and the like, may be strongly culturally driven.

MORE: Human Emotions Are Not as Complex as We Thought

Maria Gendron, a post doc in the lab of psychology professor Lisa Feldman Barrett at Northeastern University, visited remote tribes in Namibia to come to that conclusion. Gendron spent 18 days with the Himba, a people with little exposure to the Western world. When members were asked to sort photos of six people making six facial expressions of emotions, she expected to see six neat piles of images.

Instead, she found that the tribal members created a multitude of piles, with some images appearing in more than one. The same thing happened when she played vocal sounds of emotions – the same sound appeared joyful to some and more negative to others. When she and Barrett repeated the experiment in Boston, there was more unanimity in the sorting.

MORE: What Men Share on Social Media But Not With You

That sunk the idea that emotional expressions were universal; the Himba, for example, saw what Westerners would view as happy expressions as reflecting anything from happy to laughing to wonder.

They believe that the notion of universal facial expressions emerged from flaws in the way the original theory was developed in the 1970s, when American psychologist Paul Ekman traveled to Papua New Guinea to conduct a study similar to the one Gendron did. Ekman, however, asked the participants to match images of facial expressions to six words or scenarios depicting the emotions. That constraint, Barrett and Gendron, believe, implied a universality in emotional expressions that may not have existed.

The findings aren’t the first to nibble away at some conventional wisdom about how we express emotions. Recently, Scottish researchers at the University of Glasgow questioned the long-held belief that humans expressed six emotions – happy, surprised, afraid, disgusted, angry and sad. Instead, they found that similarities among some of them mean there are likely only four basic emotional expressions – happy, sad, afraid/surprised, and angry/disgusted.

How we read and express how we feel, it seems, is strongly influenced by how the people around us express how they feel. We feel what we see.

TIME mental health

Human Emotions Are Not as Complex as We Thought

Group of people with different emotions
Getty Images / Getty Images

New study says we only have four: happy, sad, afraid/surprised, and angry/disgusted

Forget the conventional thinking that humans are complex creatures with a wide range of emotions. New research suggest we only have four.

The widely held scientific assumption is that we have six emotions: happy, surprised, afraid, disgusted, angry, and sad. But a new study from University of Glasgow scientists published in the journal Current Biology this week says humans may only have four biologically based emotions: happy, sad, afraid/surprised, and angry/disgusted.

Participants of the study were shown computer-generated facial expressions and asked to identify the emotion from among the six predominantly accepted ones. At the start, anger and disgust, as well as fear and surprise, looked very similar. For example, surprise and fear have similar eyebrow movements. As the expressions developed, though, participants were able to distinguish between them, but only over time, suggesting that differences in anger, disgust, surprise, and fear are the result of social evolution rather than biological.

Emo kids everywhere are processing this news with a much more limited scope of emotion than before.

[Current Biology]

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