Published on 20th April 2020

With schools shut due to lockdown and some kids spending more times on screens, parents may be concerned about the impact. According to research published in The American Journal of Sociology, despite the time spent with smartphones and social media, young people are just as socially skilled as those from the previous generation.1

Researchers compared teacher and parent evaluations of children who started pre-school in 1998 (six years before Facebook launched) with those who began school in 2010, when the first iPad debuted.

Results showed that from the teacher’s perspective, children’s social skills did not decline between the 1998 and 2010 groups. Both groups of children were rated similarly on interpersonal skills such as the ability to form and maintain friendships and get along with people who are different to them. They were also rated similarly on self-control, such as the ability to regulate their temper.

In fact, teachers’ evaluations of children’s interpersonal skills and self-control tended to be slightly higher for those in the 2010 cohort than those in the 1998 group. Even children who had the heaviest exposure to screens showed similar development in social skills compared to those with little screen exposure, the researchers found.

The one exception was that social skills were slightly lower for children who accessed online gaming and social networking sites many times a day.

Douglas Downey, lead author of the study and professor of sociology at The Ohio State University said: "Overall, we found very little evidence that the time spent on screens was hurting social skills for most children. There is a tendency for every generation at my age to start to have concerns about the younger generation. The introduction of telephones, automobiles and radio all led to moral panic among adults of the time because the technology allowed children to enjoy more autonomy," he said.

"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.”

While this study focused on children’s social skills, other studies have shown that excessive screen time in preschool-age children can cause structural differences in the brain, particularly in areas that support language and other emergent literacy skills2, and could be associated with shorter attention spans.3