The Children’s Media Foundation (CMF)

Q3: Will spending too much time in front of a screen affect my child’s social skills?

‘Screen time’ describes the length of time in a day that children spend in front of a screen. Surveys that show what are considered to be high levels of screen time for children often raise concerns about the role of digital media in their lives and which activities are getting squeezed out as a result. It’s difficult to make accurate calculations on this as the figures usually rely on asking parents to estimate how long their child watches television or goes online. The specific situation makes a big difference: young children often play with traditional toys while the television is on in the background. Whether this counts as screen time and whether it makes any difference in this context is unclear, although a study [1] suggests that exposure to background television may have a negative impact on children’s thinking skills and social play.

An_Vrombaut_colour_low _resFor now, television continues to be the main form of children’s exposure to screens in the home but there has been an increase in the use of screen-based devices such as tablets and smartphones so there are certainly more screens around in the average home than there were just a few years ago. It’s not unusual to see adults and young people using a mobile phone, tablet or netbook and television all at the same time, making it even more difficult to calculate screen time. In America, recent findings show a big jump in what’s available to very young children: for example, the number of children under eight who have used mobile devices like smartphones for some kind of media activity has almost doubled since 2011 to nearly three quarters (72%). [2]

Adolescents typically spend more time using screen-based media than younger children. A survey by Ofcom shows that the amount of time spent online almost triples to just over three hours on weekend days between the ages of five to seven and 12 to 15. However, this difference is not as marked when it comes to watching the television, with children aged between five and seven watching an average of nearly three hours on a weekend day and children aged 12 to 15 watching about the same amount at just over three hours. While some research claims that playing video games can displace activities such as reading, it has not found conclusively that it limits the amount of time spent interacting with parents or friends. [3]

Controversially, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that parents limit their child’s entertainment media consumption to no more than 1-2 hours per day, while children under two should have as little exposure to screen media as possible. The AAP also advises that TVs and internet-connected devices should be kept out of a child’s bedroom, and that parents should spend time watching media with their children. [4]

A report from Public Health England [5] had a lot of publicity in 2013 for saying that time spent playing computer games had a negative impact on children’s wellbeing. The report also made claims about the link between how much television children watch and how unhappy they are. It claims that every additional hour of viewing increases the chances of children experiencing emotional problems and low self-esteem. It seems unlikely to be that straightforward: as we point out above, it’s difficult to calculate screen time accurately and the report seems to exclude time spent using the computer for homework as that’s considered to be OK. The report is not based on original research but summarises other studies. Tucked away on the last page it says that there is no proof of a causal link.

Alternatively, there is evidence that children who engage with various kinds of media are developing skills that can connect them to the modern world. The ability to use these technologies responsibly, often referred to in research as ‘digital citizenship’, has been shown to help children in their relationships as well as promoting creativity and self-expression. The ways in which children actually use digital media, such as accessing emails, playing in virtual worlds and video conferencing with family members and friends, can support both social interaction and play. [6] [7]

One UK-based study of children aged five to seven found that online virtual worlds provide children with opportunities for play that are not so different from their real-world play activities, claiming that sites such as Club Penguin offer children the chance to use role-play and make-believe, as well as develop other elements of social play. [8] There can be down sides to sites like these, though: some people feel that they develop consumerism too early as they encourage children to have paid membership and to collect virtual items that cost real money. And in the same way that children can feel excluded from real-world play, cyberbullying can make children feel left out from online games. But, overall, properly moderated virtual worlds can encourage social interaction and teach children how to engage in digital arenas, potentially preparing them to navigate online environments more safely in the future, especially if parents keep an eye on what’s going on. This can be particularly helpful for children who are geographically isolated from others or those who have an illness that means that they can’t get out and about. Although there have been concerns expressed about social networking sites having a negative impact on young people’s social skills they can also support adolescents to develop feelings of social connectedness and wellbeing. [9]

It seems likely that spending many hours a day in front of a screen is not good for us in terms of physical activity, although there’s a great deal more concern about children’s screen time than there is for adults who spend their whole working week in front of a screen. Children may go through phases of spending excessive amounts of time on various activities, whether it’s riding their bike or drawing. Some people used to say that too much time spent reading could lead to social isolation. Ultimately, most of us would prefer that children enjoyed a balanced range of activities rather than spending all of their time on one thing to the exclusion of others. Finding enjoyable activities to share is one solution to this. It may even help if you show an interest in your child’s online play – if you’re willing to chat about their activities they might be more responsive when you ask them to do something else for a while.

 Illustration by Anne Vrombaut

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[1] Lapierre M., J. Piotrowski and D. Linebarger (2012) Background television in the homes of US children. Pediatrics, published online October 1, 2012.
[2] Rideout V. (2013) Zero to Eight: Children’s media use in America 2013. San Francisco: Common Sense Media.*
[3] Howard-Jones, P. (2011) The impact of digital technologies on human wellbeing: Evidence from the sciences of mind and brain. Oxford: Nominet Trust.
[4] Strasburger, V. and Hogan, M. (2013) Policy Statement: Children, adolescents and the media. Pediatrics 132 (5) 958-961.
[5] Public Health England (2013) How healthy behaviour supports children’s wellbeing. Health & Wellbeing Directorate, Public Health England.
[6] Holloway, D., Green, L. and Livingstone, S. (2013) Zero to Eight. Young children and their internet use. London School of Economics, London: EU Kids Online.
[7] McPake J., Plowman L. & Stephen C. (2013) Preschool children creating and communicating with digital technologies at home. British Journal of Educational Technology 44 (3) 421-431.
[8] Marsh, J. (2010). Young children’s play in online virtual worlds. Journal of Early Childhood Research 8 (1) 23-39.
[9] Valkenburg, P. & Peter, J. (2009) Social consequences of the Internet for adolescents: A decade of research. Current Directions in Psychological Science 18 (1) 1-5.

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