A study recently revealed that children, aged nine to 13, pay close attention to potentially threatening information and avoid eye contact when anxious. According to researchers, the shorter and less frequently they look in the eyes of others, the more likely they are to be afraid of them, even when there may be no reason to be. They also found that the child continues feeling fearful of that person even though he/she may no longer be threatening or scary.
Kalina Michalska from the University of California, Riverside said that looking at someone’s eyes helps them understand whether a person is feeling sad, angry, fearful, or surprised. But less is known about eye patterns in children, so, understanding those patterns can help us learn more about the development of social learning. The researchers showed 82 children, aged 9 to 13 years old, images of two women on a computer screen.
The computer was equipped with an eye tracking device that allowed them to measure where on the screen children were looking, and for how long. The participants were originally shown each of the two women a total of four times. Next, one of the images was paired with a loud scream and a fearful expression, and the other one was not. At the end, children saw both faces again without any sound or scream.
They examined that the participants’ eye contact when the face was not expressing any emotions, to determine if children make more eye contact with someone who is associated with something bad or threatening, even when they are not expressing fear at that moment. The results suggested that anxious children tend to avoid making eye contact, which leads to greater fear experience. Even though avoiding eye contact may reduce anxiety in the short term. The research appears in journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry.