With children spending increasing amounts of time on screen-based devices, there is a common perception that technology is taking over their lives. But a new study has revealed that as digital pastimes have become intertwined with daily life, children have adapted their behavior to include their devices.
Much like adults, they are able to multi-task and also do all the things that they would do anyway, said researcher Dr. Killian Mullan at the University of Oxford in England.
The study also reveals gender differences in how children use technology.
Although boys and girls spend similar amounts of time using devices, boys spend significantly more time playing video games compared to girls. Boys spend about 50 minutes a day playing games, while girls spend just nine minutes a day.
The bulk of girls’ time is spent engaging in other activities, such as study and socializing, said Mullan, a senior research associate at Oxford’s Centre for Time Use Research.
The new research combines data from two national UK Time Use Surveys 2000-01 and 2014-15 to examine changes in screen-based activities and build a detailed picture of the time children spend using technology, according to Mullan.
The work assesses how the time children between the ages of 8 and 18 spend daily on screen-based activities — TV, video games and computers — has changed since 2000. It then analyzes how children are incorporating the use of devices, such as smartphones and tablets, into their daily activities.
Previous studies have focused on how much time children spend doing certain screen-based activities each day, but have not included any context of other activities, such as homework or dinner, according to Mullan.
This makes it difficult to fully appreciate how children incorporate the use of technology into their daily lives, he noted.
Published in Child Indicators Research, the study uses time-diary data. Children fill out a diary, recording the sequence of activities they engage in throughout the day, and include when they are using a digital device (smartphone, tablet, or computer) throughout the day, Mullan explained.
The study found that children spent 10 minutes less time watching TV between 2000 and 2015. However their time playing video games and using computers increased by 40 minutes, giving an overall increase of 30 minutes in the time children spent on traditional screen-based activities.
The work considers the increased availability of portable devices — smartphones and tablets — and reinforces reports from other data sources, such as Ofcom, that in 2015 children spent on average of two hours and 46 minutes, or approximately 20 hours a week, using a device.
“While this is undeniably a considerable amount of time, taken with context it suggests less cause for alarm,” Mullan said. “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 — one hour and 30 minutes — is when a screen-based activity is the child’s primary focus, he noted.
“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,” he said. “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 devices — one hour and 16 minutes — they report engaging in a wide range of activities, including when at school (14 minutes), socializing (13 minutes), traveling (12 minutes), studying (nine minutes), eating (six minutes), and playing sports (three minutes).
According to Mullan, this raises important questions about the extent to which mobile devices are altering the nature of children’s experiences.
However, the overall amount of time spent on these activities did not change noticeably between 2000 and 2015, indicating that the amount of time that children use technology may be increasing, but is not reducing time spent on other activities, he said.
“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,” Mullan explained. “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 (TV, video games, and computer), the increase in screen time between 2000 and 2015 jumps substantially from 30 minutes to one hour and 46 minutes.
However, Mullan’s study highlights how children’s increasing use of technology is spread throughout the day while they are engaging in many other activities.
Whether this ability to multi-task is effective, proving a distraction, or even affecting their mental health, is not clear and needs further investigation, he noted.
“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,” he said.
“The bigger point is that, as with 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.”
According to Mullan, the difference in the times boys and girls play video games was surprising.
“Much is written about the negative effects of video games, but there are possible benefits as well,” he said. “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.”
To expand the picture of children’s technology use further, Mullan is now studying how the use of screen-based technology relates to “family time” and activities with their parents. Results from that study are expected in late 2018.
Source: University of Oxford