For years, it has been speculated that technology can harm children’s social skills.
Research has supported this speculation, including a UCLA study that experimented with 51 sixth-graders for five days. Although it was not a large enough sample to draw reliable conclusions, the experiment was valid.
The theories about how children lose their ability to communicate because of technology have been popularized by many authors on social media. They make claims without much evidence.
We know that children use the internet at home more than ever before, from 11% in 1997 up to 60% in 2017. In 1998, a study looked negatively correlated screen time and children’s social skills. This included an increase in loneliness and depression. These negative associations were not found in a follow-up study by the same researchers in 2002. Why?
This change in data could indicate that the negative effects of technology have decreased as children become more proficient at using it.
The important social skills for kids’ success in life are something that everyone agrees on. Social scientists should sound the alarm if social skills are declining. But is this true?
This important topic is now illuminated by new research.
The American Journal of Sociology has published the latest edition. It compares the perceptions of parents and teachers of children’s social skills using data from a longitudinal study conducted between 1998 and 2010.
The new study is led by Douglas Downey (Professor at Ohio State University) and focuses on a representative sample of American youth. The study was designed to answer the question, “Are children’s social skills decreasing?” Researchers used data from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study of 1998 and 2010 and the National Education Longitudinal Study of 2008. The research included more than 60.000 K-8 students.
Teachers and parents were asked questions about their children’s social skills. This included their ability to make and keep friends, share feelings positively, and get along well with others. Teachers and parents were also asked the same questions over twelve years when internet use increased dramatically among American youth.
The results: Parents and teachers weigh in on kids’ social skills
Teachers’ perceptions about children’s social skills and their self-control remained relatively constant from 1998 to 2010. As children moved through the first, third, or fifth grades, the same pattern of perceptions was maintained. Teachers rated children’s social skills slightly higher than they did in 1998 in 2010,
Parents reported a similar story. Parents reported that their children were rated similarly to teachers regarding social skills. However, the evaluations received at the end of the twelve years were slightly lower than the ones received at the beginning.
Teachers and parents did not notice any decline in social skills during increased internet use.
Only Part of the Story
This new study shows that technology has not affected children’s social skills. However, it is important that we remember that sociability is just one aspect of thriving. Abilities like resilience, self-awareness, and resourcefulness–among others–play an integral role in positive child and adolescent development.
These and other developmental attributes are being studied by a growing number of researchers, which include the potential positive effects of internet use on children. Researchers have found that social media and email help students to build and maintain their social networks. The use of new media can improve existing friendships, strengthen parent-child relationships, or link children to interest-driven online groups that will boost their creativity.
Recent research on graphic animations (GIF) suggests that these images can communicate nuanced layers of meaning in a way that is not possible with text-only communication or face to face communication. Studies are showing that technology may have negative effects on people’s lives, not just in their social skills but also in other areas. Studies suggest that technology may actually be making it easier to make face-to-face connections.
Why are children’s social skills not declining?
Dr. Downey, Dr. Gibbs and their research associate Dr. Gibbs looked at the results and asked “Why didn’t children’s face to face social skills decline in the way most would expect?”
They believed that adults were in a “moral panic” about the potential consequences of new technology, which led to their belief that children’s social skills were at risk. This belief implied that sociability develops naturally. You might believe that spending more time online means less face-to–face interaction. This could also lead to a decrease in social skills.
Children develop social skills in a more complex and nuanced way than they do linearly. While the internet can reduce some social skills, it can also promote them in other ways. It’s not a zero-sum game.
The authors suggest that screen-based technologies are not detrimental to social relationships. Instead, they can be understood as a way for children to seek autonomy from their parents, establish group norms, sanction peers, create and maintain identities and, in some cases, develop social skills.
This study suggests that parents should limit screen time for their children. This study does not support the idea that screen time can cause a decline in social skills.
However, screen time should be limited for other reasons. There are many opinions and research that differ, including shocking insights from teens.