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Hearing Status Affects Children's Emotion Understanding in Dynamic Social Situations: An Eye-Tracking Study

Understanding others’ emotional behavior is essential for navigating daily social life. But how is such an understanding achieved? The eye-tracking study by Yung-Ting Tsou and colleagues shows that children with hearing loss adopt a unique visual strategy that makes uses of explicit visual information in social situations to support their daily communication.

Yung-Ting Tsou, Boya Li, Mariska E. Kret, Johannes H. M. Frijns, and Carolien Rieffe
22 December 2020
Read the paper in Ear and Hearing

For children to understand the emotional behavior of others in a social situation, the first two steps are to encode and interpret the emotional cues, according to the Social Information Processing model. To acquire these skills, access to daily social interactions is prerequisite, and hearing loss can impede this access due to a lack of auditory input. Despite increasing research on children with hearing loss, their emotion understanding in social situations has hardly been studied. To narrow this gap, we investigated how children with and without hearing loss encode and interpret nonverbal emotional cues in dynamic, naturalistic social situations, using an eye tracker.

Results showed that children with and without hearing loss both spent more time looking at the heads of protagonists in the videos, than at their body or actions. However, compared to hearing children, children with hearing loss spent less time looking at the head of a person when the facial expression was not visible. Instead, they diverted their attention to the person’s body posture and the interaction partner’s facial expressions. Children who did this more often, unfortunately, were less accurate in interpreting the protagonist’s emotions.

These findings show that children with limited auditory input may develop alternative strategies for collecting explicit visual information to make better sense of their daily social environment. Nevertheless, to also benefit from these strategies, extra support is essential to interpret this information in its social context.

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