Screen time doesn’t make kids less social, inter-generational analysis reveals

Social distancing means more time inside for our youngsters, and that also means more screen time. However, a new study suggests that this isn’t cause for much concern — young people today are just as socially skilled as those from the previous generation, it found.

Image via Pixabay.

The team compared teacher and parent evaluations of children who started kindergarten in 1998, which is around six years before the launch of Facebook with those who started school in 2010 when the first iPad debuted. According to their findings, both groups were rated similarly on interpersonal skills — such as the ability to form and maintain friendships and get along with people who are different from them. Both groups were also rated similarly for self-control, the ability to regulate one’s temper.

Kids these days

“In virtually every comparison we made, either social skills stayed the same or actually went up modestly for the children born later,” said Douglas Downey, lead author of the study and professor of sociology at The Ohio State University.

“There’s very little evidence that screen exposure was problematic for the growth of social skills.”

Downey conducted the study with Benjamin Gibbs, associate professor of sociology at Brigham Young University. The idea for the study came several years ago during — of all things — an argument Downey had with his son at a pizza restaurant. They were discussing whether younger generations had poorer social skills than older ones.

“I started explaining to him how terrible his generation was in terms of their social skills, probably because of how much time they spent looking at screens,” Downey said. “[His son] Nick asked me how I knew that. And when I checked there really wasn’t any solid evidence.”

To get to the bottom of the issue, Downey used data from The Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, which is run by the National Center for Educational Statistics and follows children from kindergarten to the end of fifth grade. Using this data, they compared children who began kindergarten in 1998 (19,150 students) with the cohort that began kindergarten in 2010 (13,400 students).

As part of the study, each child was assessed by teachers six times during this time. They were also assessed by parents at the beginning and end of kindergarten and the end of first grade. The authors focused mostly on teacher evaluations because they are more abundant and perhaps more objective — although the results from parents were comparable, they say.

Children’s social skill did not decline between the 1998 and 2010 groups. In fact, teachers’ evaluations of children’s interpersonal skills and self-control tended to be slightly higher for those in the 2010 cohort than those in the 1998 group, Downey said. Even children in the two groups who were engaging in the most screentime showed similar development in social skills compared to those with little screen exposure, results showed.

As far as the teachers were concerned, children’s social skill did not decline between the 1998 and 2010 groups. In fact, teachers’ evaluations of children’s interpersonal skills and self-control tended to be slightly higher for those in the 2010 cohort than those in the 1998 group, Downey said. Even children in the two groups who were engaging in the most screen time showed similar development in social skills compared to those with little screen exposure, results showed.

“But even that was a pretty small effect,” Downey said. “Overall, we found very little evidence that the time spent on screens was hurting social skills for most children.”

“There is a tendency for every generation at my age to start to have concerns about the younger generation. It is an old story. The introduction of telephones, automobiles, radio all led to moral panic among adults of the time because the technology allowed children to enjoy more autonomy,” he says.

If anything, all this new technology is teaching younger generations that having good social relationships means being able to communicate successfully both face-to-face and online, Downey said.

The paper “Kids These Days: Are Face-to-Face Social Skills among American Children Declining?” has been published in the American Journal of Sociology.

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