Can children learn emotions in front of the screen?

Children’s increasing screen time concerns parents. Are these concerns warranted? And how does one boost the quality of digital activities? Learn more from this video on brain researchers describing their study of emotions.

Parents are concerned about the violence and addictiveness of games. Many fear that too much time in front of the screen will stunt the child’s social and emotional development.

Little research has been done in this field.

“We don’t know whether or not digital devices are harmful to children,” says researcher Katri Saarikivi of the University of Helsinki Cognitive Brain Research Unit.

Saarikivi’s group focuses on different forms of interaction:

“Among other things, we try to determine the elements of high-quality interaction that are impossible to convey across the screen, as compared to situations in which the child interacts face-to-face with others.”

Playful lab time

Previous research indicates that in face-to-face interaction the participants’ brain rhythms tend to synchronise. It is not yet known whether this also happens during Skype calls or other digital interaction.

“If such synchronisation does not take place via Skype, does it affect the quality of interaction? And is there any way to make on-screen interaction more like face-to-face communication?” Saarikivi wonders.

“According to studies, groups interact better online if they have first met in person,” she adds.

Saarikivi heads the Natural Emotionality in Digital Interaction project, which is searching for answers to questions in “live laboratories”, where children can experience and express their emotions through audiovisually aided play.

Says Saarikivi: “We’re surveying a new field of research and hope to combine basic research with the development of applications.”

Understanding the emotions of others

One of the tools being devised by the NEMO team is a kind of blob, a concrete object that those interacting online could hold in their hands.

Each blob would be tailored to its user so it could measure the user’s physiological changes taking place during communication. It would then submit the emotions it detects to the other participant, who could see or feel the emotions through his or her own blob.

“Of course, such a device would only be suitable for cases in which people are willing to express their emotions,” Saarikivi emphasises.

Finns aren’t considered particularly expressive as regards their emotions. The blob could change our reputation.

“Finland could become the frontrunner in emotional intelligence,” says Saarikivi, chuckling.

NEMO is one of the semifinalists of the Helsinki Challenge competition. It involves researchers from the University of Helsinki Cognitive Brain Research Unit and Aalto University, as well as the Soundage company, Teosto and creators of children’s programmes for the Finnish national broadcasting company, Yle.

Watch a video of NEMO team's research