The "technology is destroying our humanity" trope has been around for thousands of years, certainly since the invention of writing devalued textual memorization. I wouldn't be surprised if there were analogous complaints about the invention of the spear.
The most overhyped version of this trope that I've ever seen was the 2009 "Twitter numbs our sense of morality and makes us indifferent to human suffering" scandal, where hundreds of media outlets wrung their hands over a study that had nothing to do with either Twitter or morality (see "Debasing the coinage of rational inquiry: a case study", 4/22/2009). Running a close second is the 2005 "emails, text and phone messages are a greater threat to IQ and concentration than taking cannabis" kerfuffle (see "An apology", 9/25/2005).
But the current "Access to Screens is Lowering Kids' Social Skills" paroxysm is offering some stiff competition to these classics in the anti-technology nonsense department.
Some of the media uptake: "Why Access to Screens Is Lowering Kids’ Social Skills"; "Study: Digital Media Erodes Ability To Read Emotional Cues"; "How digital technology and TV can inhibit children socially"; "Children Losing Social Skills in Digital Age?"; "Screen Time Makes Tweens Clueless on Reading Social Cues"; "Digital media erodes social skills in children"; "Kids losing social skills due to smartphones"; "Is smartphone making your kids anti-social ?";"Are Young People Losing the Ability to Read Emotions?"; "Technology-Obsessed Children Losing the Ability to Read Emotions"; and many more.
The scientific publication behind this: Yalda Uhls et al., "Five days at outdoor education camp without screens improves preteen skills with nonverbal emotion cues", Computers in Human Behavior, October 2014. Perhaps because it has apparently arrived from a couple of months in the future, this paper is Open Access, so you can read it for yourself.
And here's what you'll learn.
51 kids about 11 years old "spent five days in a nature camp without access to screens" (the Pali Institute); a control group of 54 kids spent the same period going to school, during which time they are assumed to have maintained their normal self-reported screen consumption of 1.1 ± 1.6 hours a day of texting, 2.1 ± 1.6 hours a day of watching TV, and 1.4 ± 1.4 hours a day of playing video games.
Before and after those five days, the subject took "the Faces subtests of the second edition of the Diagnostic Analysis of Nonverbal Behavior (DANVA2)", and "The Child and Adolescent Social Perception Measure (CASP)". Here are the results for DANVA2:
So the Camp group started out about 15% worse than the Control group, for some unexplained reason (maybe due to the rather different ethnic makeup of the groups?); after five days away from screens, they were essentially the same as the Control group (well, maybe 4% better). Both groups improved, probably due to a practice effect. The Control group didn't improve as much.This might be because their social awareness was fried by all that screen time, which is what we're supposed to believe. But it also might be because of a ceiling effect, or or it might be because they were less interested in the whole "take a test for science" thing than the kids who just spent five days at science camp; or it might be for some random reason, like the reason that the Camp group was 15% worse to start with ….
On the CASP test, the Camp kids' score improved from 26% correct to 31% correct, while the Control kids stayed flat at 28% correct.
Again, the Control kids did a little better in the beginning, but didn't improve as much. Again, this might be because of their screen time during those five days; or it might be (for example) because the Camp kids were all excited about science, or just generally feeling good; or it might be because the Control kids were jaded and worn out after being in school all week. (Note that there were no control tests of long division or short-term memory or anything else that might tell us about general alertness and commitment to the testing process…)
It would be fair to frame these results as Uhls et al. did in their paper's title: "Five days at outdoor education camp [...] improves preteen skills with nonverbal emotion cues" — or maybe just "Five days at science and nature camp makes preteens better test takers". What absolutely is NOT true of these results is that "Access to Screens Is Lowering Kids’ Social Skills", or that "Digital Media Erodes Ability To Read Emotional Cues", or that "Screen Time Makes Tweens Clueless on Reading Social Cues", or that "Kids [are] losing social skills due to smartphones", or any of the other ways that the results have been reported in the popular media. (Only 22% of the Camp group and 26% of the Control group even had a cell phone of whatever type.)
It makes you wonder whether journalists and their editors in general lack the basic ability to read and think — maybe their interpretive abilities have been fried by all that screen time? The alternative explanation is that they just don't care, preferring to go for the click-bait and never mind the facts. The "go for the click-bait" theory is a variant of the suggestion I made a few years ago, that science stories "have taken over the place that bible stories used to occupy. It's only fundamentalists like me who worry about whether they're true. For most people, it's only important that they're morally instructive."
What would [journalists and their editors] say, if presented with evidence that they've been peddling falsehoods? I imagine that their reaction would be roughly like that of an Episcopalian Sunday-school teacher, confronted with evidence from DNA phylogeny that the animals of the world could not possibly have gone through the genetic bottleneck required by the story of Noah's ark. I mean, lighten up, man, it's just a story.