What effect does technology have on children’s social skills and fitness levels?

Technology is literally taking over the world and kids of all ages are being brought up with gadgets the previous generation could only dream of. From tablets to phones, social media to smart TVs — they have access to everything. But, is it too much of a good thing? Is technology influencing their social and physical wellbeing?

For many years, there has been intense debates regarding the impact of devices and online platforms. Do they cause poor communication skills and reduced physical activity, or does it help children keep in contact with their peers and enhance their physical fitness? Here, we explore the effects of technology on a child’s health and socialising.

Kids using technology in the UK

At the end of 2017, there were 11.54 million households who owned a single television set, 8.66 million owning two, 4.11 million having three household television sets, and 1.75 million had four, according to data by the Broadcasters’ Audience Research Board (BARB). Another recent survey by Samsung found that UK households also have on average 18 smart devices — including mobiles, tablets and TVs — while other research has forecasted that the use of iPads will increase to 18.1 million users by 2019.

Although this data doesn’t indicate how much time parents and guardians allow their kids to consume technology, it at least suggests that most children have regular access to several devices in their homes. For some people, this opportunity can make it easier for youngsters to opt for sedentary activities, rather than playing sports or physical games, which could impact negatively on their physical fitness.

But what about emerging technologies, such as Smart speakers? Devices including Microsoft’s Cortana and Amazon’s Alexa are becoming increasingly popular in the UK. Futuresource found that there was a global year-on-year increase of 212% in smart speakers in 2017, with the UK and US estimated to be the key markets — accounting for an approximate 89%. Clearly, UK families enjoy their gadgets, and smart speakers offer a quick and easy way to access information. Although smart speakers are convenient and can help children learn facts quickly, do they remove the requirement for kids to explore ideas when they have an answer only a spoken question away — and could this impact on their ability to debate and discuss ideas with peers?

Boy Wearing Blue T Shirt Using Black Laptop Computer in a Dim Lighted Scenario

Technology’s impact on children’s social skills

Many people are pro-technology when it comes to socialising. Social media platforms such as Facebook allow kids to keep in contact with friends who don’t live nearby, while programs like Skype can help teachers conduct one-to-one tuition sessions in a virtual classroom. From a safety perspective, smartphones also allow kids to easily keep in touch with their parents when they aren’t in their care, which is certainly a bonus. What’s more, a report by UNICEF discovered that technology helped kids boost their existing relationships with friends, while also assisting those who struggled to socialise easily in person.

Besides the notable advantages of allowing a close relationship between kids and technology, there are people who claim that overuse can cause issues. Research carried out at Newcastle University found that primary school children who consumed up to three hours of television a day grew up to be better communicators at secondary school. However, watching any more than three hours was believed to lead to poorer linguistic skills. Bad communication could significantly impact our kids’ ability to make connections, participate in the classroom and promote themselves during university and first-job interviews — so how much TV are our kids watching? According to an Ofcom 2017 media use report:

  • 96% of 3-4-year-olds watch TV on a TV set for 15 hours a week.
  • 95% of 5-7-year-olds watch TV on a TV set for 13.5 hours a week.
  • 95% of 8-11-year-olds watch TV on a TV set for 14 hours a week.
  • 91% of 12-15-year-olds watch TV on a TV set for 14.5 hours a week.

Although these stats might show that children aren’t consuming more than the ‘recommended’ three-hour-a-day limit per week, this report also found that over 48% of each age group — 90% in the 12-15-year-old category — also watched YouTube videos on top of TV.  The advances in technology now mean that kids can watch content on multiple platforms, not just the television set, which makes ensuring that children are receiving the right amount of real-life conversation tougher.

Many theories are available regarding how technology affects children’s communication and socialisation skills. Child psychologist at the Child Mind Institute in New York, Melissa Ortega, claims that children use their phones as an “avoidance strategy” and can have trouble initiating “those small talk situations”. Similarly, Dr. Jenny Radesky of Boston Medical Center, states that kids “learn by watching,” and suggests that if they aren’t engaging in physical socialisation, keeping their eyes instead on their smartphones and tablets, then they are missing out on important communication development stages.

How may technology affect children’s physical health?

It’s clear that the use of technology can both aid and affect children’s social skills, but what are the thoughts around its effects on a child’s physical health? As we’ve seen from the above figures, most children are engaging with technology for several hours a week — which could be time spent enjoying physical activities. According to the Ofcom report:

  • 53% of 3-4-year-olds go online for eight hours a week.
  • 79% of 5-7-year-olds go online for nine hours a week.
  • 94% of 8-11-year-olds go online for 13.5 hours a week.
  • 99% of 12-15-year-olds go online for 21 hours a week.

That’s a huge amount of time spent engaging in a sedentary activity but, perhaps worryingly, a lowly nine percent of parents and guardians claim that their children (aged 5-16 years) reach the government’s recommended daily amount of physical activity. 60 minutes is reportedly the least amount of time needed to maintain good health, however, it appears that the trend for social media, video games, YouTube, Netflix and other technology may be causing a reduction in physical activities.

But, can we prove that technology is a cause of a decrease in physical health? Since the major advances in technology have been recent, we could look at childhood fitness in previous generations. The World Health Organization reported that the number young adults aged five-19 who are obese has risen tenfold in the past 40 years. Although diet and education may also be to blame, technology should arguably also be held partially accountable for this global problem.

Oppositely, however, many argue that online platforms and tablets encourage physical activity in kids. YouTube is packed with tutorial videos that can help kids get into and practice a sport, while games like Nintendo Wii combine the virtual world with physical movement. Then, you have a host of engaging, child-friendly apps for everything from yoga to running that are designed to get kids off the sofa, plus plenty of after-school sports clubs that have Facebook and Twitter accounts to persuade kids surfing online to join.

There are obviously many online opportunities to get kids more active, so are we simply missing them?

How to encourage social interaction and physical activity

It’s noticeable that there are pros and cons on both sides when it comes to technology’s effects on physical and social wellbeing. Fighting a battle against technology might be impossible, so here are some tips on getting children engaging in physical activities to boost their fitness and social skills:

  • Think of fun activities that your kids can work at and improve in, such as climbing and skiing.
  • Don’t use phones at the dinner table during mealtimes, so that you can make time for conversation.
  • Find apps that encourage physical activity so your kids can keep their phone while moving more.
  • Walk or cycle to school together.
  • Take your child and their friends bowling, swimming or to a soft-play venue once every few weeks.
  • Check out what clubs your child’s school offers and ask if they want to get involved — this doesn’t have to be sport-based, but should get them off their tablets and socialising.
  • Ban your child from taking their smartphones and tablets to bed with them to limit the time they spend online before going to sleep — the blue light emitted from devices harms sleep quality which is vital to well-being.
  • Organise a family hike somewhere different one weekend every month.

It’s clear that, while technology has appeared to negatively impact on children’s social and physical health at times, if used correctly, it can also be a support. Devices are fine if not overused, so limit your child’s time and incorporate some of the above tips into your family life to ensure that the rising trend for technology doesn’t mean your child misses developing socially and physically.

This article was researched and created by Chill Factore, hosts of fun family days out in Manchester at the UK’s longest indoor real snow slope.

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