Brother and sister watching video on smartphone screen together

Smartphones shown to have no impact on reducing child social skills

Image credit: Andrii Biletskyi | Dreamstime

A study suggests that today's young people are just as socially skilled as those from the previous generations despite exposure to social media and other content on smartphones and tablets.

The study, conducted by researchers at Ohio State University in the US, compared teacher and parent evaluations of children who started kindergarten in 1998 – six years before Facebook launched – with those who started school in 2010, when the first iPad made its debut.

Results from the study showed both groups of children were rated similarly on interpersonal skills such as the ability to form and maintain friendships and get along with people who are different. They were also rated similarly on self-control, such as the ability to regulate their temper.

“In other words, the kids are still all right,” said Douglas Downey, lead author of the study and professor of sociology at the university. “In virtually every comparison we made, either social skills stayed the same or actually went up modestly for the children born later... There’s very little evidence that screen exposure was problematic for the growth of social skills.”

Downey said the idea for the study came several years ago when he had an argument at a restaurant with his son, Nick, about whether social skills had declined among the new generation of youth. “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,” he said. “Nick asked me how I knew that. And when I checked there really wasn’t any solid evidence.”

Downey and associate professor Benjamin Gibbs used data from The Early Childhood Longitudinal Study (ECLS) run by the National Center for Educational Statistics.

The ECLS follows children from kindergarten to fifth grade. With this knowledge, the researchers comparing data on the ECLS-K cohort that included children who began kindergarten in 1998 (19,150 students) with the cohort that began kindergarten in 2010 (13,400 students).

The children in the study were assessed by teachers six times between the start of kindergarten and the end of fifth grade. They were also assessed by parents at the beginning and end of kindergarten and the end of first grade.

As part of the study, Downey and Gibbs focused mostly on the teacher evaluations as they followed children all the way to fifth grade. However, the results from parents were comparable.

The researchers found that from the teachers’ perspective, children’s social skills did not decline between the 1998 and 2010 groups. Furthermore, similar patterns persisted as the children progressed to fifth grade.

According to Downey, 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. Also, the results showed that even children within the two groups who had the heaviest exposure to screens showed similar development in social skills compared to those with little screen exposure.

There was one exception however, social skills were slightly lower for children who accessed online gaming and social networking sites many times a day.

“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.”

Downey added that while he was initially surprised to see that time spent on screens didn’t affect social skills, he shouldn’t have been. He said: “There is a tendency for every generation at my age to start to have concerns about the younger generation. It is an old story.”

These worries often involve “moral panic” over new technology, he added. Adults are concerned when technological change starts to undermine traditional relationships, particularly the parent-child relationship.

“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 said. “Fears over screen-based technology likely represent the most recent panic in response to technological change.”

Downey concluded that if anything, new generations are learning that having good social relationships means being able to communicate successfully both face-to-face and online. “You have to know how to communicate by email, on Facebook and Twitter, as well as face-to-face,” he said. “We just looked at face-to-face social skills in this study, but future studies should look at digital social skills as well.”

In September 2019, Helena Pozniak spoke to psychologists about whether technology addiction is truly a real threat to an individual’s physical and mental wellbeing and in society.

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