Are Young People's Social Skills Declining?
New research eases fear of technology’s negative impact on youth.
Posted April 15, 2020 | Reviewed by Gary Drevitch
For more than a decade, adults have argued that technology is having a detrimental effect on young people's social skills. New research may clear up this debate.
Theories about how children and teens have lost their ability to communicate effectively due to technology have become popularized and circulated widely on social media by authors with little evidence to back up their assertions. Research has reinforced this speculation too, including a UCLA study that conducted an experiment with 51 sixth-graders for five days, hardly a large enough sample for reliable conclusions.
One fact that most people agree upon is the importance of social skills to young people's life success. If social skills are truly declining, then researchers should be sounding the alarm. But are they? In the latest edition of the American Journal of Sociology, researchers compared parents’ and teachers’ perceptions of children’s social skills from data collected in three longitudinal studies (Downey & Gibbs, 2020).
This new study, led by Douglas Downey of Ohio State University, is the first to take a deeper dive into a large, representative sample of American youth during years when children’s use of the internet at home increased substantially. Aimed at answering the question, “Are children’s social skills declining?” researchers used statistics collected by the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study of 1998 and 2010 and the National Education Longitudinal Study of 1988. In all, more than 60,000 K-8 children were represented.
In each study, teachers and parents were asked questions related to children’s social skills, including their ability to form and maintain friendships, express feelings in positive ways, and get along with people different from themselves. The same questions were asked of teachers and parents over the 12-year span.
From 1998 to 2010, teacher perceptions of children’s social skills remained relatively unchanged, as did their evaluation of kid’s self-control. The same pattern of perceptions continued as children progressed through first, third, and fifth grades. In fact, teachers rated children’s social skills slightly higher in 2010 than in 1998.
A similar narrative was reported by parents. Parents rated their children’s social skills much as teachers had, with slightly higher evaluations at the end of the 12-year period than at the beginning.
The bottom line is that no decline in social skills was noted by teachers or parents during this period of increased internet activity.
Social Skills Are One Aspect of Thriving
While this new study presents a reassuring picture that social skills have not suffered as the result of technology use, it is important to note that sociability is only one aspect of thriving. Abilities like resilience, self-awareness, and resourcefulness, among others, play an integral role in child and adolescent development.
A growing number of scholars are studying these and other developmental attributes of thriving, including the potentially positive effects of internet usage on children. For example, researchers have observed how email and social media help students build and maintain social networks. New media can enhance existing friendships, negotiate parent-child relationships, and link kids to online interest-driven groups that boost their creativity.
Recent research about graphic animations (GIF’s) suggest these images can convey nuanced and complex layers of meaning that are not possible with text-only or face-to-face communication. Hence, studies are beginning to show that people may overestimate the negative consequences of technology, not only on social skills but in other areas as well. In fact, studies suggest that new technologies may be enabling more effective face-to-face connections.
Why Social Skills Are Not Declining
Downey and his associate reflected on the results of their study, asking, “Why did children’s face-to-face social skills not decline in the way most would have expected?”
They believe that “moral panic” over the predicted consequences of new technology led adults to believe that children’s social skills were in a free fall. This belief implied the assumption that sociability evolves in a linear manner. For example, if one believes that more time on the internet leads to fewer face-to-face interactions, one might also believe a decline in social skills will follow.
Kids develop social skills in much more complex and nonlinear ways. The internet may reduce social skills in some ways and promote them in others. It is not a zero-sum experience.
A 1998 study initially showed a negative relationship between kids’ screen time and social skills, including an increase in depression and loneliness. A follow-up study by the same researchers in 2002 no longer found those negative associations. Why?
The change in data may suggest that as children have become more adept at using technology, the negative consequences have diminished. Rather than undermining social relationships, the authors suggest that “screen-based technologies may be better understood as providing a new platform by which children seek autonomy from parents, develop group norms and sanction peers, build and maintain identities, and in some ways, develop social skills.”
Based on this study, should children’s screen time be limited? If parents are concerned with a decline in children’s social skills, this study shows no evidence that limiting screen time would have meaningful benefit.
That said, there may be other good reasons to limit screen time. There are many differing opinions and research, including surprising insights from teens on the disadvantages of social networking and internet usage.
Downey, D. B., & Gibbs, B. G. (2020). Kids these days: Are face-to-face social skills among American children declining? American Journal of Sociology, 125(4), 1030-1083.
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Miltner, K. M., and Highfield, T. (2017). Never gonna GIF you up: Analyzing the cultural significance of the animated GIF, Social Media1 Society 3 (3).
Uhls, Y. T., Michikyan, M., Morris, J., Garcia, D., Small, G. W., Zgourou, E., & Greenfield, P. M. (2014). Five days at outdoor education camp without screens improves preteen skills with nonverbal emotion cues. Computers in Human Behavior, 39, 387-392.