The effect of technology on children's social skills and fitness levels


Is technology affecting our kids’ social and fitness abilities?

There’s little point pushing against technology — from smart TVs to iPhones, new gadgets are launching all around us. But what effect is this having on their social and physical wellbeing?

Some experts and parents claim that technology has an effect on how well our kids socialise and communicate, not to mention impacts on their time spent enjoying physical activities — but how true is this opinion? Here, we explore the effects of technology on children’s health and ability to socialise…


How are kids in the UK engaging with technology today?

Apparently, kids have access to plenty of tech products in their homes — could this availability lead to overuse? According to BARB — Broadcasters’ Audience Research Board — as of the end of 2017, 11.54 million households owned one television set, while 8.66 million had two, 4.11 million owned three, and 1.75 million had four. 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 iPad use will increase to 18.1 million users by 2019. For some people, the mere opportunity to engage with technology 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.

Moving away from TV and tablets, new innovations in the world of tech are also making it harder to manage and reduce kids’ tech-time for parents. Smart speakers, like Amazon’s Alexa and Microsoft’s Cortana, are growing in popularity 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 also remove the need 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?


Is technology damaging our children’s ability to talk and discuss?

The effect of technology on communication and socialisation is a divisive topic — perhaps even more so than tech and fitness. Platforms like Facebook and Twitter allow kids to maintain relationships with friends who perhaps live many miles away, while programs like Skype 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.

While certain platforms make communication easier, there are still plenty of people who claim it is harmful to a child’s social skills as they grow if overused or relied on too heavily. Research carried out at Newcastle University found that primary school kids 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 statistics might indicate that children aren’t consuming more than the three-hour-a-day limit per week, this report also showed that more than 48% of each age group — 90% in the 12-15-year-old category — also watched YouTube videos on top of TV. It’s now acceptable and achievable for kids to engage with technology on many different formats and platforms. Admittedly, this makes managing a child’s tech-use and ensuring that they are getting enough face-to-face socialisation tougher.

But, who says that it is detrimental and has there been any academic thought behind the argument with regard to socialising? Melissa Ortega, a child psychologist at the Child Mind Institute in New York, 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.


Kids’ fitness and the over-use of technology

When it comes to fitness, technology is often not associated with being a helpful factor in getting kids active. 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 8 hours a week.
  • 79% of 5-7-year-olds go online for 9 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.

These statistics show that kids seem to be spending a lot of time engaging in activities that don’t require physical activity. Worryingly, only 9% of parents claim that their children (aged 5-16 years) achieve the government’s recommendation of one hour a day 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

Can we know for sure that technology is to blame for a decline in childhood fitness? Since the major advances in technology have been recent, we could look at childhood fitness in previous generations. The World Health Organization has reported that the number of obese young adults aged 5-19 years 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.

Conversely, some people argue that technology gadgets and platforms in fact support and encourage physical activity and fitness in kids. YouTube is packed with tutorial videos that can help kids get into and practice a particular 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.

Could it be that parents and schools are simply not capitalising on the technology opportunities that are around?


Booting a child’s social interaction and physical activity without technology

Evidently, there are arguments on both sides. 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:

  • Ask your kids not to use phones at the table during mealtimes, so that you can make time for conversation.
  • Think of fun group activities that your kids can work at to increase their interest levels.
  • Look through the App Store on your child’s phone together to find apps that encourage physical activity — that way, they get to keep their phone while moving more.
  • Organise a family hike somewhere different one weekend every month.
  • Walk or cycle to school together.
  • Take your child and their friends bowling, swimming or to a soft-play venue once every few weeks.
  • 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.
  • Check out what clubs your child’s school offers and ask if they want to get involved — this could be sport-based or not, as long as it gets them off their tablets and socialising.

Tech platforms and gadgets can be positive, if monitored and used intelligently. 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.


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