COLUMBUS, Ohio — Modern adolescents are growing up in a very different world than their parents. Smartphones and tablets have become “essentials” for children as young as five years old. There’s been much debate about how all of that technology and frequent screen time is influencing children’s behavior, mindsets, and development, but a new study finds that kids today are largely unfazed by technology in at least one regard.
Researchers from Ohio State University say that modern adolescents are just as skilled socially as previous generations, despite their use of digital technology.
Parent and teacher evaluations for children who started kindergarten in 1998 were compared to evaluations for kids who started school in 2010. Both groups were rated quite similarly regarding interpersonal skills like forming friendships or getting along with various types of personalities. Additionally, both groups displayed roughly the same levels of self-control.
“In virtually every comparison we made, either social skills stayed the same or actually went up modestly for the children born later,” explains Douglas Downey, lead author of the study and professor of sociology at OSU, in a release. “There’s very little evidence that screen exposure was problematic for the growth of social skills.”
Downey originally formulated the idea for this study after having an argument with his son about young people’s communication skills a few years ago.
“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,” Downey remembers. “Nick asked me how I knew that. And when I checked there really wasn’t any solid evidence.”
The data used for this research included 19,150 students who began kindergarten in 1998, and 13,400 students kindergartners in 2010. All of those kids were tracked up until the fifth grade.
Each child was assessed by their teachers six times between kindergarten and fifth grade, and assessed twice by their parents. Interestingly, based on the majority of teachers’ feedback, students’ social skills really didn’t decline all that much between 1998 and 2010. Both generations also exhibited about the same progression of social skills are they grew older.
Moreover, the 2010 group was actually rated slightly higher regarding interpersonal skills and self-control. Even the amount of screen time among students didn’t seem to have a big impact; kids with the heaviest exposure to screens and technology progressed socially at the same pace as everyone else.
However, there was one noticeable drawback: Kids who played online games or visited social media frequently throughout the day did display slightly lower overall social skills.
“But even that was a pretty small effect,” Downey says. “Overall, we found very little evidence that the time spent on screens was hurting social skills for most children.”
Now, Downey admits he was probably being too harsh on younger generations.
“There is a tendency for every generation at my age to start to have concerns about the younger generation. It is an old story,” he says.
New technology often incites “moral panic” among older generations, or the fear that these new devices will render traditional relationships and interactions obsolete.
“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 concludes. “Fears over screen-based technology likely represent the most recent panic in response to technological change. 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. We just looked at face-to-face social skills in this study, but future studies should look at digital social skills as well.”
The study is published in the American Journal of Sociology.