Clifford Nass ’81 *86

In a study of girls, Clifford Nass ’81 *86 found that face-to-face communication is key to healthy social and emotional development.
In a study of girls, Clifford Nass ’81 *86 found that face-to-face communication is key to healthy social and emotional development.
PHOTO: PETER STEMBER

While walking through the Stanford dorm where he is a resident fellow, Professor Clifford Nass ’81 *86 stopped to chat with a student who was texting a friend nearby. When Nass asked why she didn’t speak to her friend instead, she replied that texting was more efficient and that “it doesn’t really make a difference if you see the person or not,” recalls Nass.

Nass noticed other instances of people choosing electronic devices over face-to-face interactions: people using a tablet or phone at restaurants, forgoing conversation; tweens and teens texting as they sat together — reminding Nass of how toddlers play near each other but not with each other, a concept known as parallel play.

How will all this affect young people’s social and emotional development, he wondered. “The way you learn about emotion is by paying attention to other people,” reading their facial expressions and listening to the tone of their voices, says Nass, a professor of communication who studies the psychology of human-computer interaction.

So Nass and colleagues decided to look at the emotional and social implications of heavy media use and media multitasking — for example, checking Facebook, chatting online, and watching a video at the same time — among girls 8 to 12 years old, a critical period in their emotional development.

The girls who reported being avid online media users and multitaskers, and spending less time engaging in face-to-face communication, had lower self-esteem, felt less accepted by peers, had more friends whom their parents considered bad influences, and didn’t get as much sleep. “We found the best predictor of healthy social and emotional development was face-to-face communication,” says Nass.

Most people write happy things on online platforms such as Facebook, he says. Yet “negative emotions take the most practice,” he says: Negative emotions are much more complex and use much more of the brain.

Parents worry about their children’s acquiring academic skills, he says. But more important are emotional and social skills. The ability to understand your emotions and manage them, “the ability to pay attention, to listen to others, to empathize, to do all that — is a huge predictor of doing well,” he says.

If children are growing up with less face-to-face interaction, Nass sees problems ahead. “Increasingly, we are seeing companies talking about their young workers lacking these basic social and emotional skills,” he says. Will they be able to work in teams and collaborate in the workplace? “It’s a huge worry.”

Tips for parents from Clifford Nass

  • Emphasize the importance of face-to-face ­interaction with adults and other children.
  • Discourage media multitasking, particularly in younger children.
  • Realize that social-media use is not a ­substitute for face-to-face communication.