Does Screen Time Actually Hurt Kids' Social Skills?

New research finds little evidence of a negative impact in elementary-schoolers.

Posted Apr 16, 2020

Photo by pan xiaozhen on Unsplash
Source: Photo by pan xiaozhen on Unsplash

In great news for parents everywhere, a new study indicates that kids these days still have normal social skills despite smartphones and tablets.

One of the key criticisms of screen time for children is that it leads to less direct socialization. It feels like common sense that less time spent socializing would take away from opportunities to learn social skills. Parents worry when they hear stories from other parents who’ve taken kids out to coffee shops and watched those kids pull out their phones rather than talking with the friends right in front of them.

There is certainly enough research to suggest parents have reason to be concerned about the potential negative impact of certain kinds of screen time on mental health. But at least when it comes to the social skills themselves, it looks like parents can relax a little bit about the impact of screens. A new study published in the American Journal of Sociology suggests that screen time has little effect overall on kids' social skills.

Like so many parents, the lead author of the study was convinced that social skills had deteriorated in this generation. A professor of sociology at Ohio State University, Douglas Downey first had the idea for the study during an argument with his son. While eating pizza with his son Nick, Downey “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 said in a press release on April 15. “Nick asked me how I knew that. And when I checked there really wasn't any solid evidence.”

The study compared elementary school children from two generations.

To investigate, Downey and his colleague, Benjamin Gibbs, associate professor of sociology at Brigham Young University, used data from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, run by the National Center for Educational Statistics.

The study looked at two cohorts of children: the first included about 19,000 children who began kindergarten in 1998, and the second included 13,400 students who started kindergarten in 2010. The significance of these groups has to do with new technologies: 1998 was six years before Facebook and 2010 was the year the first iPad was introduced.

The ECLS collected ratings from parents three times—at the start and end of kindergarten and at the end of first grade. It also collected evaluations from teachers six times between kindergarten and the end of fifth grade.

In both the eyes of parents and teachers, children had similar social abilities in both groups. The children were rated on things like how they controlled their temper or how well they maintained friendships. The study even looked at the children’s ability to get along with those who were different from themselves. In fact, the teachers rated both the interpersonal skills and the self-control of children slightly higher in the group from 2010.

Surely screen time has some negative effect on social skills?

We’ve heard for so long that screen time diminishes a child’s ability to learn social skills that it may be hard to accept the findings. Yet the study found that the children with the largest amount of screen time still developed social skills similarly to the kids with only a little. The only exception was found in the kids who participated in social networks and online gaming many times a day; for them, social skills were slightly lower.

Even Downey was surprised. He referred to an age-old question, "What’s wrong with kids these days?" It’s normal for older generations to panic over how new technologies impact the young.

”Overall, we found very little evidence that the time spent on screens was hurting social skills for most children,” Downey explained in the press release. "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.”

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