KIDS
April 28, 2020

Kids These Days

Screen time can be a problem, but that doesn't mean it's all bad. In fact, it can advance some aspects of development.

You've heard it before — kids these days just aren't the same. One of the major complaints about the younger generation today has to do with the amount of time they spend looking at their screens and the harm this does to their social skills. Fortunately, younger people aren't taking these accusations lying down. They're asking for proof and at least in one case, the proof simply wasn't there.

A father was out sharing a meal with his son in a local restaurant and, in the time-honored tradition of parenthood, was berating him over his generation's deficiencies.

Even kids with the most exposure to screens had developed their social skills equally as well as those with little screen exposure did. There was one exception.

“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,” explained the father, Douglas Downey, a professor of sociology at Ohio State University.

His son asked him how he knew that. And when Downey went looking for proof, he couldn't find any. Instead, he found evidence that today's kids are every bit as socially skilled as their predecessors.

Score one for the kids.

Downey and a colleague analyzed a study of social skills that had followed two groups of children from kindergarten through fifth grade. It started following one group in 1998 — six years before the launch of Facebook — and began following the second group in 2010.

The study was called the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study (ECLS) and there were over 30,000 children in the two groups. They were evaluated by teachers six times between the start of kindergarten and the end of fifth grade.

The evaluations showed no evidence of declining social skills in the 2010 group. Both groups of kids were rated similarly on interpersonal skills such as the ability to form and maintain friendships and get along with people who are different. They were also rated similarly on self-control, including the ability to regulate their temper.

In fact, the teachers' evaluations tended to be slightly better for children in the 2010 group than for the children in the twentieth century group, according to Downey. Even children with the most exposure to screens had developed their social skills equally as well as those with little screen exposure did.

There was one exception: children who accessed online gaming and social networking sites many times a day had slightly poorer social skills. “But even that was a pretty small effect,” Downey said. “Overall, we found very little evidence that the time spent on screens was hurting social skills for most children.”

In hindsight, Downey says that the results aren't that surprising. Similar outcries were once made over telephones, radio and automobiles. “Fears over screen-based technology likely represent the most recent panic in response to technological change,” he said.

But pediatricians do advise limits on kids' screen time for other reasons. Parents should know that there are many useful strategies for curbing kids' media use.

Downey's research appears in the American Journal of Sociology.

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