Screen time isn’t hurting kids socially, study finds
Despite being raised in a screen-lit world, today's children make and maintain friendships as well as past generations.
- The dominate cultural assumption claims screen time devastates children's social skills.
- A recent study in the American Journal of Sociology suggests today's children are as socially skilled as the preceding peers.
- Parents need to set screen limits, but research shows they should set limits for themselves, too.
Every good parent has a worrier in them. They worry whether their children are eating right, staying safe, enjoying school, building self-esteem, maintaining supportive relationships, developing good habits, and brushing their teeth well—well, good enough at least.
Lucky for today's parents, older generations have performed the trial runs and scientific studies for many of these concerns. Such research and folk knowledge can provide guidance as they have already weeded out many of the bad practices from generations farther back. There is a notable exception: screen time.
The first members of Gen Z are only now entering adulthood. Educators, pundits, and specialists—many parents themselves—worry this cohort has become socially stunted due to their increased interaction with, and reliance upon, devices for everything from education to entertainment.
But a recent study published in the American Journal of Sociology suggests this concern is overblown.
Screening the evidence
Douglas Downey, professor of sociology at Ohio State University, wanted to test the pervasive cultural concern that today's children suffer from poorer social skills. He teamed up with Benjamin Gibbs, associate professor of sociology at Brigham Young University, and they did what good sociologists do: They analyzed the best available data.
That data came from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, a program overseen by the National Center for Education Statistics. Each of the program's studies follows a generational cohort from kindergarten to at least fifth grade. It asks teachers, parents, and administrators to assess children on their cognitive, social, emotional, and physical development at home and in school. Teachers assess the students six times from the start of kindergarten to the end of fifth grade, while parents assess their children three times from the beginning of kindergarten to first grade.
Downey and Gibbs compared the data for the class of 1998-99 (19,150 students) and 2010-11 (13,400 students) because, despite both cohorts falling under the Gen Z label, each was raised in wildly different technological worlds.
The year 2010 saw the release of the iPad, the spread of 4G networks, and the launch of the social media decade. But in 1998, screen time was restricted to home-bound TVs and desktop computers—unless you count the endless hours playing Snake on your Nokia 5110.
Despite these dissimilarities, Downey and Gibbs found little variance in how teachers and parents evaluated the children's social skills.
"In virtually every comparison we made, either social skills stayed the same or actually went up modestly for the children born later," Downey said in a release. "There's very little evidence that screen exposure was problematic for the growth of social skills."
Teachers and parents rated children similarly on self-control, interpersonal skills, the ability to form friendships, and how they handled diversity—even after accounting for factors like screen time use and family makeup. Within the cohorts, social skill trajectories remained similar for heavy-use children as lighter use.
The only exception proved children who accessed online gaming or social networking sites many times a day. These children's excessive screen time did lead to a slightly lower evaluation of social skills.
"Do as I say, not as I do"
Despite concern over kids' screen time, parents can spend up to 9 hours a day on digital devices.
Yet, a predominant social assumption is that screen time makes children socially inept. Common sense views screen time as a blue-lit security blanket, a place for children to tuck themselves away from the difficulties of navigating social reality. Unable to interact face-to-face, these children grow to become adult recluses who'll probably live in a trailer lit dimly only by a lone computer monitor.
It's a view expressed by Victoria Dunckley, M.D. and author of "Reset Your Child's Brain," where she writes, "The more a child hides behind a screen, the more socially awkward he or she becomes, creating a self-perpetuating cycle."
Where does this perspective come from if teachers and parents evaluate today's children as socially competent as their pre-iPad predecessors? Downey attributes it to classic moralizing.
"The introduction of telephones, automobiles, 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."
There's the classic parental double-standard to consider, too. While our culture worries over children's screen time, parents spare much less thought on how their media use may degrade their relationships and social skills.
By one survey's count, parents spend a staggering nine hours per day glued to their screens. Roughly three-quarters of that time is for personal, non-work use. Of those surveyed, 78 percent believed they were "good media use role models for their kids," the very kids they worry spend too much time on their screens.
Developing a media plan
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, a healthy family media plan includes setting limits and parental engagement.
Screen time may not harm children's social development as much as we fear, but that's obviously not carte blanche for limitless digital distractions. Children's minds and bodies are still developing, and other studies have correlated excessive screen time with deleterious effects on sleep patterns, physical health, and language development.
In a policy statement, the American Academy of Pediatrics (APP) acknowledges the educational value of managed, well-designed screen time for young children. But its authors similarly acknowledge health and developmental concerns when it comes to content and excessive use.
To help parents out, the association recommends families create a media-use plan to prevent media from displacing other important activities. A good media plan should set limits, promote parent engagement, and incorporate tech-free zones but resist using screens as "emotional pacifiers."
Such media plans must be appropriate to a child's age, too. Teenagers use the internet to build relationships and explore their place in social networks, while younger children may need it more as a place of fun, educational escapism. Parents should also do their research as many programs marketed as educational are anything but.
"If used appropriately, [digital media is] wonderful," Marjorie Hogan, a pediatrician at Hennepin County Media Center in Minneapolis, told NPR. "We don't want to demonize media, because it's going to be a part of everybody's lives increasingly, and we have to teach children how to make good choices around it, how to limit it, and how to make sure it's not going to take the place of all the other good stuff out there."
Downey and Gibbs's study doesn't suggest parents don't need to worry about balancing screen time with face-to-face interactions. It does, however, suggest that parents are doing a better job than they may think and can worry less—though, of course, they probably won't.
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The idea of 'absolute time' is an illusion. Physics and subjective experience reveal why.
- Since Einstein posited his theory of general relativity, we've understood that gravity has the power to warp space and time.
- This "time dilation" effect occurs even at small levels.
- Outside of physics, we experience distortions in how we perceive time — sometimes to a startling extent.
Physics without time<p>In his book "The Order of Time," Italian theoretical physicist Carlo Rovelli suggests that our perception of time — our sense that time is forever flowing forward — could be a highly subjective projection. After all, when you look at reality on the smallest scale (using equations of quantum gravity, at least), time vanishes.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"If I observe the microscopic state of things," writes Rovelli, "then the difference between past and future vanishes … in the elementary grammar of things, there is no distinction between 'cause' and 'effect.'"</p><p>So, why do we perceive time as flowing <em>forward</em>? Rovelli notes that, although time disappears on extremely small scales, we still obviously perceive events occur sequentially in reality. In other words, we observe entropy: Order changing into disorder; an egg cracking and getting scrambled.</p><p>Rovelli says key aspects of time are described by the second law of thermodynamics, which states that heat always passes from hot to cold. This is a one-way street. For example, an ice cube melts into a hot cup of tea, never the reverse. Rovelli suggests a similar phenomenon might explain why we're only able to perceive the past and not the future.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Any time the future is definitely distinguishable from the past, there is something like heat involved," Rovelli wrote for the <a href="https://www.ft.com/content/ce6ef7b8-429a-11e8-93cf-67ac3a6482fd" target="_blank"><em>Financial Times</em></a>. "Thermodynamics traces the direction of time to something called the 'low entropy of the past', a still mysterious phenomenon on which discussions rage."</p>
The strange subjectivity of time<p>Time moves differently atop a mountain than it does on a beach. But you don't need to travel any distance at all to experience strange distortions in your perception of time. In moments of life-or-death fear, for example, your brain would release large amounts of adrenaline, which would speed up your internal clock, causing you to perceive the outside world as moving slowly.<br></p><p>Another common distortion occurs when we focus our attention in particular ways.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"If you're thinking about how time is <em>currently</em> passing by, the biggest factor influencing your time perception is attention," Aaron Sackett, associate professor of marketing at the University of St. Thomas, told <em><a href="https://gizmodo.com/why-does-time-slow-down-and-speed-up-1840133782" target="_blank">Gizmodo</a></em>.<em> "</em>The more attention you give to the passage of time, the slower it tends to go. As you become distracted from time's passing—perhaps by something interesting happening nearby, or a good daydreaming session—you're more likely to lose track of time, giving you the feeling that it's slipping by more quickly than before. "Time flies when you're having fun," they say, but really, it's more like "time flies when you're thinking about other things." That's why time will also often fly by when you're definitely <em>not</em> having fun—like when you're having a heated argument or are terrified about an upcoming presentation."</p><p>One of the most mysterious ways people experience time-perception distortions is through psychedelic drugs. In an interview with <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/books/2018/apr/14/carlo-rovelli-exploding-commonsense-notions-order-of-time-interview" target="_blank"><em>The Guardian</em></a>, Rovelli described a time he experimented with LSD.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"It was an extraordinarily strong experience that touched me also intellectually," he said. "Among the strange phenomena was the sense of time stopping. Things were happening in my mind but the clock was not going ahead; the flow of time was not passing any more. It was a total subversion of the structure of reality."<br></p><p>It seems few scientists or philosophers believe time is completely an illusion.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"What we call <em>time</em> is a rich, stratified concept; it has many layers," Rovelli told <em><a href="https://physicstoday.scitation.org/do/10.1063/PT.6.4.20190219a/full/" target="_blank">Physics Today</a>.</em> "Some of time's layers apply only at limited scales within limited domains. This does not make them illusions."</p>What <em>is</em> an illusion is the idea that time flows at an absolute rate. The river of time might be flowing forever forward, but it moves at different speeds, between people, and even within your own mind.
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