In the summer of 2012, 51 children visited a summer camp just outside Los Angeles. The children were typical Southern Californian public school kids: an equal mix of boys and girls aged 11 or 12 years old, from a variety of ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds. All of them had access to a computer at home, and roughly half owned a phone. On average, they spent an hour texting friends each day, about two and a half hours watching TV, and just over an hour playing computer games.
For this one week, the children would leave their phones and TVs and gaming consoles at home. Instead, they hiked and learned to use compasses and to shoot bows and arrows. They learned how to cook over a campfire and how to tell an edible plant from a poisonous plant. They weren’t explicitly taught to look each other in the eyes, face-to-face, but in the absence of new media, that’s exactly what happened. Instead of reading “LOL” and staring at smiley-face emojis, they actually laughed and smiled. Or didn’t laugh and smile, if they were sad or angry.
On Monday morning, when the kids arrived at the camp, they took a short test called the DANVA2, which stands for the Diagnostic Analysis of Nonverbal Behavior. It’s a fun test—one of those tests that goes viral on Facebook—because all you have to do is interpret the emotional states of a bunch of strangers. For half the test you look at their faces in photos, and for the other half you listen to them read a sentence aloud. Then you decide whether they’re happy or sad or angry or fearful.
That may sound trivial, but it isn’t. Some of the faces and voices are easy to read—these are labeled “high-intensity”—but many of them are subtle. Like deciding whether the Mona Lisa is smiling inside, or whether she’s just bored or unhappy. I tried the test and got some of the answers wrong. One guy sounded mildly depressed, but the test told me he was actually mildly afraid.
The summer camp kids had the same experience. They made an average of 14 errors across the 48-item test. Four days of camping and hiking later, the kids were ready to file onto buses to return home. Before they did, the researchers administered the DANVA2 again. They reasoned that a week of face-to-face interaction without distraction from gadgets might make the kids more sensitive to emotional cues.