Is technology killing our kids' social skills?

They “talk” with GIFs, memes and emojis. They don’t just have friends, they have social media followers. And when they do meet face-to-face, chances are, they’ll be huddled around a screen.

Kids these days are “texting sitting right next to each other,” says Pasadena parent Kacey Marshall, echoing the concern of many parents. “It makes no sense. I’m worried about the impact it will have on their social skills.”

Technology 3 WCommunication looks very different among kids of the so-called “Gen Z” or “iGen” who are spending, on average, as many as seven hours a day on a screen of some sort, according to polls by the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association and Common Sense Media. But experts are just beginning to study how technology might be affecting the social and emotional development of the digital natives of the rising generation.

“From attention disorders and multitasking to basic social interaction and interpersonal skills, we need to devote more time and research to understanding the impact of media use on our kids and then adjust our behavior accordingly,” wrote Ellen Wartella, a Northwestern University professor, in a recent Common Sense Media report about technology addiction in kids.

Although some experts argue that researchers are using antiquated standards of communication, some preliminary findings are disturbing. University of California, Los Angeles scientists recently found that sixth-graders who went five days without even glancing at a digital screen did substantially better reading human emotions than sixth-graders from the same school who continued to spend hours each day looking at their electronic devices.

And a recent poll by the ASHA found that kids are using technology to communicate with their family and friends instead of talking with them. Parents say these devices are making it harder for their children to pay attention when someone is talking and engage in meaningful conversations.

“Technology is so pervasive,” says Jaynee Handelsman, president of the ASHA’s Board of Directors. As an example, she explains that kids are using their phones to listen to music while they’re doing their homework and even texting at the dinner table.

Speech experts polled by ASHA say they’re concerned that current tech habits, if left unchecked, could sabotage speech and language development. Kids aren’t spending enough time listening, talking, reading and interacting with parents — interactions that technology cannot duplicate, the experts say.

Montgomery County mother of two Amy Lupold Bair, author of “Raising Digital Families for Dummies,” knows that when she talks to her son and he responds “Oh, yeah” in a certain way, he's not paying attention.

“That’s code for, ‘I didn’t look up from my iPad,'” she says. “I say, ‘Noah, look up’ and we have an actual moment ... That’s where the danger lies, missing verbal, facial cues... all of that makes communication rich.”

Shifting guidelines

The amount of technology exposure is part of what’s troubling to parents and childcare experts. A maximum of two hours in front a screenh used to be the gold standard recommended by childcare experts, including the American Academy of Pediatrics. But as screens become more ubiquitous, two hours seems implausible to many families.

The two-hour guideline issued by the AAP in 2011 “was drafted before the first generation iPad and explosion of apps aimed at young children,” according to an AAP report.

“Today, more than 30 percent of U.S. children first play with a mobile device when they still are in diapers,” according to Common Sense Media. Furthermore, nearly a quarter of 13- to 17-year-olds admit to using their phones almost constantly, according to the Pew Research Center.

This fall, the academy is poised to revise its current guidelines, says Dr. Don Shifrin, an AAP spokesman. “There’s no more offline and online distinction. The lines blur.”

According to Shifrin, “The number one serious mistake is to deny them access. The second is to give them unlimited access. ... Balance is the key.”

And it’s more important than ever for parents to know what their children are doing online, to talk with them about consequences of social media, and to teach social skills, Shifrin says.

Unhappy children

Today’s parents grew up not always knowing which classmates were at which friend’s house, but now kids know what everyone is doing all the time. This can fuel feelings of competition, jealousy or being left out.

“Our once in a while is every day for these kids,” says Kristen Jabara, a Prince Frederick mother of two, whose 12-year-old eventually agreed limits were needed.

Her daughter's iPad and phone use increased slowly — on the way to school and back, after school and even in the classroom. It wasn’t until Jabara took away her daughter’s electronics that she realized there was a problem.

“When she was grounded, I noticed a big difference,” Jabara says. “She wasn’t as moody. It’s true what they say. She was more engaged, animated and excited. ... She was almost happier.”

Marshall, who has six children, also discovered how the screen was affecting her kids after it was taken away.

She banned her triplet daughters, who are 11 years old, from using their tablets for a month. The first week they were grumpy and fought frequently with each other, Marshall says. But then, they began to play more creatively and peacefully. They started using their old gymnastics mat, for example.

“It was a major wake-up call for our family,” Marshall says. “Their personalities were altered using screens all the time. They weren’t really having fun. They weren’t happy.”

Now they have an hour of screen time when a parent is home to monitor.

Marshall’s 18- and 15-year-old daughters frequently use their smartphones, but technology doesn’t seem to have such a powerful sway on their personalities, she says.

That said, she’s found that it’s still important to have limits. On school nights, the 15-year-old’s phone is charged in the kitchen so that texts and notifications aren’t interrupting her sleep.

Click next below to read more about how technology impacts kids.


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Establishing tech-free zones

ASHA and other childcare experts are advocating for a “digital diet,” agreed-upon screen limits and tech-free family nights to encourage face-to-face communication. (ASHA also recommends turning down the volume on devices and limiting earbud use to prevent irrevocable hearing loss.)

Shifrin also says the AAP is advocating tech-free zones, such as the dinner table, where families can have uninterrupted conversations.

Some experts, such as Dr. Victoria L. Dunckley, a psychiatrist and author of “Reset Your Child’s Brain,” say even more extreme measures are needed. After three to four weeks of no screens, kids become more engaged and less stressed. School work and moods improve, says Dunckley, who practices in Los Angeles.

But others disagree, saying there are important social benefits gained by technology in an age when kids aren’t allowed to roam freely in their neighborhoods. It’s easier for some kids to find friends with similar interests online.

“Trying to overly restrict their use of technology and their connectedness is likely to cause the teen more problems than it solves,” writes John Grohol, a Massachusetts-based psychologist and author, in the World of Psychology blog.

“For many young adults, using technology to communicate appears to be preferred and seems to result in clearer and less-stressful communications,” Grohol explains in an email. “So while I think it's a legitimate concern of some experts, it's also a much smaller one than some would lead you to believe.”

Parents used to worry about television turning their kids into glassy-eyed couch potatoes unable to hold down steady jobs, Grohol and other experts point out.

Along that vein, some experts are wondering whether texts are all that different than the notes passed in class by prior generations. Or if a group of 13-year-old girls crowded around a smartphone at a slumber party is any different than the girls who once huddled around the cordless phone. Or if worrying about the number of “likes” on social media is that much worse than the popularity contests parents remember from growing up.

Right now, it’s impossible to say, according to Wartella, who directs the Center on Media and Human Development at Northwestern University.

“We have a lot of opinion and some observation,” she says. “But we don’t have a lot of data.”

Tecnology 1 WTips for limiting screen time

  • Here are some tips from the experts to help parents looking strike a balance on screen time.
  • Use technology to combat technology. There are many apps available to help parents set limits, says Amy Lupold Bair, Montgomery County mother of two and author of “Raising Digital Families for Dummies.”
  • Be a good example. Kids also want their parents’ eye contact and full attention, Bair says. “How often do we hear, ‘Mom, are you on Faceback? Um, Mom, can you put down the phone?’”
  • Use screens together. Just having kids use technology in the same room as parents can be helpful, says Jessica Snell-Johns, an Annapolis-based psychologist and therapist. Parents are more apt to notice if an online exchange has upset their child and can monitor the amount and content of the screen time if they are together.
  • Turn off devices an hour or more before bed, and don’t charge them in bedrooms, where they can interrupt sleep.
  • Give children “down time” to think and to talk. “Technology creates a lot of noise around us,” Snell-Johns says.
  • Talk about why limits are important. A poll by the ASHA found that kids were actually willing to make changes when they learned how too much technology could be impacting their health and relationships.
  • Teach kids to self-check their motivations. Have teens ask themselves why are they on the screen. Are they just bored?

“It comes down to when, why and for what purpose?” Snell-Johns says. “I try to empower parents to give their kids the gift of boundaries.”

By Laura Barnhardt Cech