The benefits last a lifetime
Most of my career has been spent at National Primate Centers. Although I was an administrator and didn’t work with animals or in research, the idea that primate health and colony stability was based on the strength of the relationships within the colony was key to my work even as an administrator. Anything that broke down those relationships could result in harm to the animals and a lot of extra work for staff.
The California National Primate Research Center researchers have used network analysis techniques to characterize relationships and to verify the benefit of social relationships to both the individual animal and the group. They have found that among rhesus monkeys, those primates that have many social connections, including friends of friends, are more resilient to disease, experience less loneliness and depression, and live longer . This likely applies to all social animals including the most social of all primates, human primates.
These findings correlate with the work of Susan Pinker who documents our quick descent from a face-to-face based community species to a more solitary screen-based species and the effects of this descent in her book The Village Effect: How Face-to-Face Contact Can Make Us Healthier and Happier . Research that she cites across diverse fields strongly supports the idea that face-to-face contact is a huge positive factor in health, longevity, and increased cognitive functioning, and this parallels the findings in non-human primates.
One of the possible confusing issues that we will need to deal with is that it makes sense that we can learn something from screens. In addition, advertisements for educational toys claim that you can learn language skills, reading, math and all sorts of content from screens or electronic gadgets. We have to understand that because of how the brain operates, we can’t help but learn from screens (both good and bad, because the brain is always learning). The real question is not can we learn things from screens, but are screens the most effective way to learn in specific contexts and for specific content. The huge problem is that we may be using a very ineffective way to teach certain skills and information.
I work with very young children (0 to 2 years old) and their parents. At this stage the research and my experience indicates clearly that the use of screens is substituting a very poor means of learning for a very rich means of learning, the live human face . The research shows that face-to-face contact and interaction is primary for human health, social well-being, and learning. The work of scientists like Dr. Pinker who are looking at social interaction, indicates that it is a primary source of learning and health benefits for our entire lives.
How do we keep face-to-face central to the human interaction and learning process while making judicious use of learning supplements such as screens? We will tackle aspects of this question in coming articles.
McCowan B, Beisner B, Bliss-Moreau E, J Vandeleest J, Jin J, Hannibal D, Hsieh F. Connections Matter: Social Networks and Lifespan Health in Primate Transitional Models Frontiers in Psychology 2016 April 22;7:4
Pinker S (2015) The village effect: why face-to-face contact matters. Atlantic Books, London
Kuhl P. K. (2010) Brain mechanisms in early language acquisition. Neuron 67: 713–72