Connor McCallum

Study: Excessive Screen Time Does Not Impact Social Skills

For an age, our parents have told us that screen time damages the social aptitude of children. Turns out, not so much.

 

A novel study performed by the American Journal of Sociology suggests that today’s children are just as socially adept as their predecessors, despite the pervasive cultural assumption that screen time kills a child’s social skills.

The first of Generation Z (those born in 1997 onward) are only now entering adulthood. Unlike other parental concerns relating to eating habits, bullying, and exercise, screen time is an issue previously uncharted, rightfully cementing itself as a concern for parents, educators, and specialists who worry that this cohort may be socially stunted due to their increased interaction with and reliance upon devices.

However, a recent study published in the American Journal of Sociology suggests that this concern can be safely put to bed.

Douglas Downey, professor of sociology at Ohio State University, set out to test this ubiquitous societal concern. Along with Benjamin Gibbs, an associate professor of sociology at Brigham Young University, they analyzed the best available data they could find; the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study.

A program enabled by the National Center for Education Statistics, each of the Early Childhood Longitudinal studies follow a generational cohort from kindergarten to at least the fifth grade, asking teachers, parents, and administrators to assess the children along the way. Their cognitive, social, emotional, and physical development will all be scrutinized by teachers six times from kindergarten to fifth grade, while parents will do the same from kindergarten to first grade.

 

The only exception was found among children who were recorded to have accessed online gaming or social networking sites multiple times a day. The excessive screen time caused by these habits did lead to a lower evaluation of social skills.

 

Downey and Gibbs compared the data for the kindergarten class of 1998-99 and 2010-11, two cohorts that, despite both falling under the label of Gen Z, were raised in vastly different digital worlds. The latter of the two witnessed the spread of 4G, the release of the iPad, and the launch of the social media decade up close and personal, while the former’s digital options were likely slow desktop computers, TV, and, if they were fortunate, a Nokia brick phone.

They found that, despite the dissimilarities, little variance existed in how the teachers and parents evaluated the children’s social skills.

“In virtually every comparison we made, either social skills stayed the same or actually went up modestly for the children born later,” Downey said in a release. “There’s very little evidence that screen exposure was problematic for the growth of social skills.”

The only exception was found among children who were recorded to have accessed online gaming or social networking sites multiple times a day. The excessive screen time caused by these habits did lead to a lower evaluation of social skills.

It is responsible to consider a parental double-standard, too. While worrying over child screen exposure in our society, parents have neglected to spare thoughts on how their own media use may degrade their relationships and social skills. This report claims that of those surveyed, parents spent a whopping nine hours per day in front of a screen. Ironically, 78% believed they were “good media use role models for their kids.”

So, screen time might not harm a child’s social development at a magnitude we intuitively fear. However, children are still developing both mentally and physically, and other studies have correlated excessive screen time with detrimental effects on sleep patterns, physical health, and language development.

The American Academy of Paediatrics (APP) acknowledges both the educational utility of managed screen time for young children, as well as the harmful health and developmental aspects excessive use can impose. The association recommends that families set limits, promote parent engagements, and incorporate tech-free zones, and should resist wielding technology as an “emotional pacifier.”

“If used appropriately, wonderful,” Marjorie Hogan, a pediatrician at Hennepin County Media Center in Minneapolis, told NPR. “We don’t want to demonize media, because it’s going to be a part of everybody’s lives increasingly, and we have to teach children how to make good choices around it, how to limit it, and how to make sure it’s not going to take the place of all the other good stuff out there.”

 

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