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Don’t Worry Parents, Research Says Technology Is Not Taking Over Your Child’s Life

21 December 2017

Screen time for kids is not as dangerous as parents might think. Source: Family CornerScreen time for kids is not as dangerous as parents might think. Source: Family Corner

Children are spending more time than ever on screen-based devices and many parents are worried about this. The common perception is that technology is taking over their lives and hurting the other non-technology areas of their lives. Older people fear technology or social media “addiction.” Check out my commentary to see exactly how I feel about this subject. But New Oxford University research has revealed that digital past-times have become intertwined with daily life, and children have adapted their behaviors to include these devices. This means that those screens may not be as dangerous as parents really think.

Similar to adults, children are able to multi-task, giving them the ability to use technology as well as all of the other things they would do anyway.

The study has revealed that there are key gender differences in how children use technology. Boys and girls spend similar amounts of time using devices, but boys spend more time playing video games than girls. Boys spend around 50 minutes per day playing video games, and girls spend about nine minutes a day. A lot of girls’ time is spent engaging in other activities like studying and socializing.

The research was conducted by Killian Mullan, a senior research associate at Oxford’s Center for Time Use Research in the Department of Sociology. The study combines data from two national UK Time Use Surveys 2000-01 and 2014-15, to study changes in screen-based activities and to build a more detailed picture of the time children spend using technology.

This work is the first of its kind in the assessment of how the time children ages 8-18 spend daily on screen-based activities, like TV, video games and computers, has changed since 2000 with an analysis of how children incorporate the use of devices like smartphones and tablets into their daily lives.

Other studies have focused on how much time children spend doing certain screen-based activities per day, but they have not included any context of other activities, like homework or dinner. This makes it difficult to fully appreciate the use of technology by children. The new research uses high-quality, time-diary data. Study participants were instructed to fill out a diary, recording the sequence of activities they engage in throughout the day, including when they are using a digital device.

The study showed that children spent 10 minutes less time watching TV between 2000 and 2015. But their time playing video games and using computers as their primary focus of activity increased by 40 minutes, with an overall increase of 30 minutes in the time children spend on traditional screen-based activities.

The research considers the increased availability of portable devices and confirms reports from other data sources, like Ofcom, that in 2015 children spent two hours and 46 minutes on average using a device.

Killian said, “While this is undeniably a considerable amount of time, taken with context it suggests less cause for alarm. In fact, the study reveals that rather than allowing their devices to take over their lives, as some research suggests, children are combining the use of new technology with other activities. Around half of this time is when a screen-based activity is the child's primary focus (1 hr. 30 min.). While they report using computers as their main activity for 30 minutes, there is also an activity overlap of approximately an hour, where devices were used while watching TV or playing video games. The increasing use of devices while watching TV coincides with a decrease in the pastime as a primary activity, suggesting that children may be watching TV on their phones and tablets instead of traditional platforms.”

For the remaining time that children are using a device, they report engaging in a lot of different activities, including when at school, socializing, traveling, studying, eating and playing sports. This brings forward questions about the extent to which mobile devices are altering the nature of children’s experiences. But the overall amount of time spent on these activities didn’t change between 2000 and 2015. This indicated that the amount of time that children use technology might be increasing, but it is not reducing time spent on other activities.

Killian explains, “Our findings show that technology is being used with and in some cases perhaps to support other activities, like homework for instance, and not pushing them out. Just like we adults do, children spread their digital tech use throughout the day, while doing other things.”

When time spent using devices is added to the measure of total screen-based activities, the increase in screen time between 2000 and 2015 jumps from 30 minutes to one hour and 46 minutes. But the study highlights how children’s increasing use of technology is spread through the day while they are engaging in many other activities.

If the ability to multi-task is effective, proving a distraction or affecting their mental health is not clear and needs to be further studied. But it is clear that technology is not consuming children’s time and attention.

Killian added, “People think that children are addicted to technology and in front of these screens 24/7, to the exclusion of other activities — and we now know that is not the case. The bigger point is that, as for adults, children are incorporating technology into daily life. They are taking the tech with them and they are doing all the things that they would do anyway — but now with devices. On paper, the total time children spend using digital devices sounds huge. But, when you break it down the picture that emerges shows how children have embedded tech in their daily activities — just like we have.”

Killian commented on the behavioral gender differences, “Gender differences in the way in which children use technology are well known, but the substantial widening of the gender difference in time playing video games is surprising. Much is written about the negative effects of video games, but there are possible benefits as well. Boys, to a greater extent than girls, may be exposed to digital cultures surrounding video gaming that improve programming skills and jobs in technology, that may well shape expectations and help form critical pathways into careers in technology. Girls are not technophobes. They use technology as much as boys but do so in markedly different ways. More research is needed to understand how to leverage all the different ways boys and girls use technology in their daily lives to help promote more gender balance in careers in technology.”

Killian is also studying how the use of screen-based technology related to family time and activities with their parents and expects to have results in late 2018.

The paper on this research was published in the journal Child Indicators Research.

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