Children are constantly surrounded by screens – whether it’s watching TV, gaming on a computer or scrolling on a phone. Parents and scholars alike are worried that growing screen exposure is destroying the rising generation’s face-to-face social skills and leaving children unable to converse and interact with others.
However, new research published in the American Journal of Sociology by Dr. Ben Gibbs, professor of sociology at BYU, showed that even with screen exposure increasing, children’s face-to-face social skills are not declining.
“In fact, if you look closely at the results, they are slightly increasing,” Gibbs said.
Research projects have been done to look at the effects of screen exposure but few have directly gauged children’s social skills. Dr. Gibbs and Dr. Douglas Downey, a professor at Ohio State University, used two large national data sets to examine social skills among two different cohorts of children from kindergarten to fifth grade before and after the internet boom.
Social skills were measured by teachers’ and parents’ ratings of the children’s interactions with peers. Almost a dozen assessments were used to help rate those skills, such as the ability to form and maintain friendships, get along with people, comfort other children, express feelings, control temper, respect others and respond appropriately to pressure from peers.
The primary analyses involved 19,150 children from 1998, when exposure to home computers and the internet was modest, and 16,450 children from 2010, after computer usage had risen sharply. In 1998, about half of 6 to 11-year-olds had access to a computer in the home, while in 2010, over 80% had access. The amount of internet use at home also jumped from 10% in 1998 to 55% in 2010.
The data showed that the teachers’ and parents’ evaluation of children’s interpersonal skills was largely unchanged between 1998 and 2010. Face-to-face social skills did not decrease as screen time increased.
“This research suggests that we may be overestimating the negative consequences of new technologies while underestimating the ways in which they enable and facilitate greater opportunities for face-to-face interactions,” Gibbs said.
The modern world is increasingly requiring children to not only have face-to-face social skills but to also learn digital skills as they navigate both friendships and eventually professional careers. This research suggests a new possibility: Perhaps screen time isn’t actually as detrimental to social skills as we think (although it could have other negative effects) but may even be socially beneficial.