Emory professor: Pandemic and screen time erode children’s social skills

Emory University clinical psychologist Stephen Nowicki warns the rise in screen time over outside time is hurting children's ability to relate to peers and to develop vital social skills, especially the ability to grasp nonverbal cues. (Courtesy of the Atlanta History Center)

Credit: Atlanta History Center

Credit: Atlanta History Center

Emory University clinical psychologist Stephen Nowicki warns the rise in screen time over outside time is hurting children's ability to relate to peers and to develop vital social skills, especially the ability to grasp nonverbal cues. (Courtesy of the Atlanta History Center)

Emory University clinical psychologist Stephen Nowicki understands the pain that parents feel when their children fret that they have no friends. He’s dedicated his career to helping children foster healthy relationships, and he’s worried we’re making it harder by giving them more time on the internet than on the playground.

He also understands the frustration of teachers over students who lost the knack of taking turns, making friends or working in groups post pandemic. After assigning her students to gather in small groups, a teacher told Nowicki the kids froze in place and had to be coaxed to join their groups, where they then argued and complained.

His new book, “Raising a Socially Successful Child: Teaching Kids the Nonverbal Language They Need to Communicate, Connect, and Thrive,” addresses the decline in the social skills essential to developing and sustaining positive relationships. He is also co-author of the 1992 book “Helping the Child Who Doesn’t Fit In.”

Stephen Nowicki is the Charles Howard Candler Professor of Psychology Emeritus at Emory University in Atlanta. (Courtesy photo)

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In researching children who misinterpret voice tones and expressions, he and his Emory colleague Marshall P. Duke coined the term “dyssemia,” meaning unable to translate nonverbal cues. These are children who end up outcasts because they can’t follow the rhythm of conversations or respect the boundaries of personal space. They miss the emotions their peers are telegraphing through facial expressions and body language and fail to sense a classmate’s mood based on tone of voice. The research suggests 10% of children demonstrate dyssemia severe enough to interfere with social or academic success.

“This is a set of skills that kids need to have; they need to learn this language of nonverbal communication,” Nowicki said in a telephone interview from his Atlanta home. “They can learn it informally in their lives, and parents can be very helpful. But schools are important and corrective. School is where you learn how to relate to your peers and to adults. It’s a lab.”

Nowicki is seeing a surge in children who haven’t yet learned how to decode nonverbal signals. He blames the rise in screen time, which erodes children’s opportunities to pick up on social cues communicated through expression, eye contact, voice tone and body language.

“As much as this was a problem when I wrote the first book, it is worse now because of social media,” he said. “Kids spending this much time online creates less opportunity for the real-life interaction lessons that you need to learn these nonverbal skills. When you finally have to play together as a team or interact with each other on a date, you need a whole different set of skills.”

Another cause is the COVID-19 pandemic, where children were isolated by school closings and remote classes. While kids already struggling with nonverbal skills lost a lot of ground, the pandemic even set back children who had not been floundering socially beforehand, said Nowicki.

Face-to-face interactions at school and on the playground compel children to pay attention to nuances of speech and movement. But virtual classes and Zoom instruction stunt the natural rhythm of conversations and prevent the back-and-forth flow that enables kids to get in sync with one another.

Masks to prevent COVID-19 also interfered with children’s ability to observe facial expressions and see smiles, which invite conversation and convey happiness. Nowicki witnessed the impact of masking in his first in-person class at Emory during the pandemic. Normally, that initial class would be abuzz with students sharing summer experiences, but Nowicki walked into silence. Aware of the discomfort and the unnatural reticence of his classmates, a student told Nowicki, “I miss smiles.”

Before children go off to school, parents control children’s experiences, arranging their play dates and regulating their behaviors. “Then, kids get in school with 25 to 30 peers and the nonverbal things that kids are not too good at can be important,” said Nowicki.

Although schools recognize children are lagging socially, they may not know the exact cause, said Nowicki. For some kids grappling with nonverbal cues, making parents aware may be enough; they’ll work with their children to close the gaps. But Nowicki believes schools are where most of the remediation and catch-up in nonverbal communications can occur.

And it can be taught, Nowicki said. Children can learn what’s too much eye contact and what’s too little. It’s easy to correct space invaders ― the children who hover, touch and violate personal space ― by demonstrating the appropriate distance at which to hold a conversation or greet someone. Kids can accept that they ought to wait to speak until a friend stops talking.

Nowicki suggests parents start asking children how they knew a classmate at their lunch table was happy or sad and discuss the power of facial expressions to channel moods and feelings. He advises theater or improv classes to teach children the import of facial expressions.

If children aren’t aided in making meaningful connections, they can become depressed and anxious, said Nowicki, adding, “I think our children are much more damaged socially than people realize.”