Did a five-day camp without digital devices really boost children’s interpersonal skills?

“There’s a brilliant study that came out two weeks ago,” Baroness Professor Susan Greenfield said at a recent event promoting her new book, “… they took away all [the pre-teens’] digital devices for five days and sent them to summer camp … and tested their interpersonal skills, and guess what, even within five days they’d changed.”

Greenfield highlighted this study in the context of her dire warnings about the harmful psychological effects of modern screen- and internet-based technologies. She is clearly tapping into a wider societal anxiety around how much time we now spend online and plugged in. But the Baroness’ critics argue that her pronouncements are vague, sensationalised and evidence-lite. The fact she mentioned this specific new study provides a rare opportunity to examine what she considers to be strong evidence backing her claims. Let’s take a look.

The research team led by Yalda Uhls studied two groups of pupils at a state school in Southern California. Both had an average age of 11 years and said they usually spent an average of 4.5 hours a day texting, watching TV and video-gaming. One group of 51 children was sent on a five-day outdoor education camp 70 miles outside of California. Mobile devices, computers and TVs were banned. The children lived together in cabins, went on hikes, and worked as a team to build emergency shelters. The other group of 54 children attended five days of school as usual.

On Monday at the beginning of the week, both groups completed two psychological tests. The first required that they identify the emotions displayed by photographs of actors’ faces. The second involved identifying the emotions displayed by characters in short video clips of social scenes, in which the sound was switched off. At the end of the week, on Friday, both groups completed the tests again.

Uhls and her colleagues highlight the fact that the summer camp group improved more on the face test over the course of the week, as compared with the school group. The summer camp group also showed improvement on the video test, whereas the school group showed no such improvement (the camp scores rose from 26 per cent correct to 31 per cent; the school group flatlined at 28 per cent). The researchers’ conclusion: “This study provides evidence that, in five days of being limited to in-person interaction without access to screen-based or media device for communication, preteens improved on measures of nonverbal emotion understanding, significantly more than the control group.”

Unfortunately there are a number of acute problems with this study, which make this conclusion insupportable. Above all, the experiences of the two groups of children varied in so many different ways, other than the fact that one group was banned from screen technologies, that it is impossible to know what factors may have led to any group differences.

It’s also notable that the summer camp group performed worse at the two tests at the start of the week as compared with the school group. For example, they began with an average of 14 errors on the face task whereas the school group made an average of just 9. Perhaps the camp kids were distracted because they were excited or anxious about the week ahead. We don’t know because the researchers didn’t measure any other psychological factors such as mood or motivation. By the end of the week, the two groups registered a similar number of errors on the face task. In other words, the technology-free summer camp kids didn’t end the week with super interpersonal skills, they’d merely caught up with their screen-addled school colleagues.

We can also speculate about why the school kids didn’t show improvement on the video task, whereas the summer campers did. Perhaps, after a long school week, the children at school were tired out. The campers, by contrast, may well have been on a high after their week in the wilderness with friends. Technology might have had nothing to do with it.

Other problems with the study are more generic, but just as serious. The children were not randomised to the two conditions. There’s no mention that the people administering the emotional tests were blinded to which children were allocated to which condition, nor to the aims of the study, which introduces the risk they might have inadvertently influenced the results.

In fairness, Uhls and her team admit to many of these shortcomings in their paper, but it doesn’t stop them from interpreting their results in line with their prior beliefs about the likely harmful effects of digital technologies, which they outline at the start of their paper. They couch their findings firmly in the wider context of technology fears, and they hope their paper will be “a call to action for research that thoroughly and systematically examines the effects of digital media on children’s social development.”

Is it easy to understand why Baroness Professor Greenfield was pleased with this study. I will leave you to judge whether she was right to label it “brilliant”, and whether the results do anything to support her arguments about the adverse effects of digital technology on developing minds.

Uhls, Y., Michikyan, M., Morris, J., Garcia, D., Small, G., Zgourou, E., & Greenfield, P. (2014). Five days at outdoor education camp without screens improves preteen skills with nonverbal emotion cues Computers in Human Behavior, 39, 387-392 DOI: 10.1016/j.chb.2014.05.036

–further reading–
Do television and video games impact on the wellbeing of younger children?
The internet probably isn’t ruining your teenager’s brain.

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.