Despite More Screen Time, Technology Isn’t Turning Children Into Zombies, Study Says

OXFORD, England — Despite widespread concern over children spending increasing amounts of time in front of their phones or other digital devices, technology is not, in fact, taking over children’s lives at the expense of other activities, a recent study concludes.

Researchers at the University of Oxford say that many children, much like adults, naturally learn to multi-task. In the process, they adapt their normal behaviors to include their devices, while still participating in all the other parts of normal kids’ lives, such as playing with friends, doing homework, etc.

Child on tablet
(Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash)

For the study, Oxford University Senior Research Associate and lead author Killian Mullan and his team combined data from two United Kingdom surveys — one from 2000 to 2001, and another from 2014 to 2015 — which recorded data on how long children ages 8 to 18 spent doing certain activities. The data used for the studies came from diary entries in which children indicate what activities they’re engaging in and the frequency of their electronic devices usage.

The researchers found that children spent 10 minutes less time watching TV between 2000 and 2015, but 40 additional minutes playing video games or using computers. That translates to a total of 30 more minutes of screen time in 2015 than in 2000. The research also takes into account calculations from other sources that claimed children spend an average of two hours and 46 minutes, or 20 hours a week, in front of a screen.

“While this is undeniably a considerable amount of time, taken with context it suggests less cause for alarm. In fact, the study reveals that rather than allowing their devices to take over their lives, as some research suggests, children are combining the use of new technology with other activities,” says Mullan in an Oxford news release.

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Mullan points to kids using their devices to watch movies or shows, instead of sitting on the couch and turning on the “old fashioned” tube.

“While they report using computers as their main activity for 30 minutes, there is also an activity overlap of approximately an hour, where devices were used while watching TV or playing videogames,” notes Mullan. “The increasing use of devices while watching TV coincides with a decrease in the pastime as a primary activity, suggesting that children may be watching TV on their phones and tablets instead of traditional platforms.”

The researchers also found key differences in how young boys and girls use their technology. Boys and girls were found to spend about the same amount of time on their devices, but boys spend far more of their screen time playing video games — an average of 50 minutes per day compared to just 9 minutes for girls. Conversely, young girls tend to spend more time on social media and other activities.

But the researchers note that studies emphasizing screen time totals often fail to consider why children are using their devices. Additional screen time may be a result of kids doing their homework on the computer or studying for an exam using a digital textbook on a tablet or phone. When context is taken into consideration, perhaps sitting in front of the computer isn’t always such a negative thing.

“People think that children are addicted to technology and in front of these screens 24/7, to the exclusion of other activities – and we now know that is not the case. The bigger point is that, as for adults, children are incorporating technology into daily life. They are taking the tech with them and they are doing all the things that they would do anyway – but now with devices,” says Mullan. “On paper, the time children spend using digital devices sounds huge. But when you break it down, you can see how children have embedded tech in their daily activities – just like we have.”

The full study was published Nov. 14, 2017 in the journal Child Indicators Research.