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Children’s social skills aren’t harmed by screen time, study suggests

Parents may find this study’s results reassuring, particularly now, during the current stay-at-home days of the coronavirus pandemic, when children’s screen time and social media use has skyrocketed.

screen time
Parents may find this study’s results reassuring during the current shelter-at-home days of the coronavirus pandemic, when children’s screen time and social media use has skyrocketed.

Today’s children are as socially skilled as those of previous generations, despite their use of digital technology and social media, according to a study published recently in the American Journal of Sociology.

Researchers compared parent and teacher evaluations of children from kindergarten through fifth grade for a group of kids who started school in 1998 (six years before Facebook was launched) with another group who started in 2010 (the year the first iPad went on sale). They looked at the ratings both groups had received for interpersonal skills, such as forming and maintaining friendships, and for measures of self-control, such as the ability to control temper.

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

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

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Parents may find this study’s results reassuring, particularly now, during the current shelter-at-home days of the coronavirus pandemic, when children’s screen time and social media use has skyrocketed.

To prove a point

In a video that accompanies the study’s release, Downey says the idea for this particular research project evolved from an argument he had one evening with his son in a pizza restaurant.

“I was simply pointing out what I thought was an obvious fact — that the newer generation lacks the same kind of social skills that my more seasoned generation has, that kids these days have their faces in their cellphone,” he says.

Downey’s son then asked his father a rather simple question: How did he know that today’s young people had fewer social skills than previous generations?

Downey told his son that he would track down the most definitive study on the issue as proof. But later, when Downey went looking for such a study, he couldn’t find one.

“I was surprised to learn that this kind of evidence didn’t really exist,” he says.

So Downey, along with his co-author, Benjamin Gibbs, an associate professor of sociology at Brigham Young University, set out to gather the evidence themselves.

Study details

For their study, the two sociologists used data from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, which is run by the National Center for Educational Statistics, the U.S. government’s primary agency for collecting education-related data. They specifically looked at data from parent and teacher assessments for two nationally representative groups of children: 19,150 who entered kindergarten in 1998 and 13,400 who started school in 2010.

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The children were assessed by their teachers six times between the start of kindergarten and the end of fifth grade. The parents’ assessments were done three times: at the beginning and end of their kindergarten year and again at the end of first grade.

The study found that social skills — defined by the researchers as “the ability to successfully negotiate the expectations of others in social interactions” — did not decline from one generation of children to the other. In fact, teacher evaluations for the kindergarteners in 2010 tended to be a bit higher than for those in 1998, and the higher assessments continued at each grade level.

The findings were true for interpersonal skills (such as maintaining friendships, getting along with people who are different, and comforting or helping other children) and for self-control (such as controlling temper, respecting the property rights of others, and responding appropriately to pressure from peers).

How much time the children spent in front of screens didn’t appear to matter. Children with the most exposure to screens developed the same level of social skills as those with the least exposure.

There was one exception: Children who spent very high amounts of time playing online games or on social media sites (those in the top fifth in terms of these  behaviors) experienced the weakest growth in social skills between kindergarten and fifth grade.

“But even that was a pretty small effect,” says Downey.

An unexpected result

The study comes with caveats. Most notably, the data from the teacher and parent assessments are necessarily subjective and may not, therefore, be reliably comparable. It could be that teachers and parents doing the later evaluations used more lenient standards to measure the children’s social skills.

Another limitation is that the study focused on younger children. Screen time generally peaks during the teen years.

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Still, this study adds much-needed evidence to the discussion about children and screen time.

Downey acknowledges that he was initially surprised by the study’s results. He expected to find that social skills had declined over time. He also expected he would be able to then “send the results to my son and win that debate.”

But the study’s findings led him to a different conclusion.

“Despite broad-based concerns about ‘kids these days,’ our results provide no evidence that American children’s face-to-face social skills have been declining,” he and Gibbs conclude in their paper. “Instead, they suggest that children and youth have been able to maintain similar levels of face-to-face social skills while simultaneously increasing their exposure to screen-based technology.”

FMI:  You’ll find an abstract of the study on the American Journal of Sociology website, bu the full study is behind a paywall.