How technology affects the social skills and fitness levels of children


Today, children are typically heavily involved with technology — from doing homework on tablets to communicating with friends on social media. But what effect is this inclination to use technology and gadgets having on their social and physical wellbeing?

There have been many debates regarding the benefits and drawbacks of children using — or over-using — technology. Some suggest that technology causes poor communication skills and reduced physical activity, while others claim that gadgets can help kids keep in touch with peers and boost physical fitness. Here, we explore the effects of technology on children’s health and ability to socialise…   


How kids in the UK use technology

Current statistics suggest that children at least have the opportunity to engage with technology freely in their homes. For example, by the end of 2017, 11.54 million households owned one television set, 8.66 million had two, 4.11 million owned three, and 1.75 million had four, according to figures compiled by the Broadcasters’ Audience Research Board. 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. Although this data doesn’t indicate how much time parents and guardians allow their kids to consume technology, it at least implies that most kids at least have access to several devices regularly 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.

How do new technologies fare in the UK? 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?  


Does technology affect children’s physical health?  

For many years, medical experts have stated that using gadgets and online platforms is keeping kids away from getting the necessary physical activity they need to be fit and healthy — but is this true? 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.

Admittedly, the above figures imply that sedentary activity is popular among youths. 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.

However, could it be that new technology is not completely to blame for a lowering of optimum physical health? Since the major advances in technology have been recent, we will 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.

An alternative argument is that many apps and devices actually support physical activity and encourage kids to get active. 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.

Are some kids simply missing opportunities to use technology for fitness purposes?


How technology affects kids’ social skills

From Facebook and Snapchat to video messaging and texting; few kids don’t engage with technology to socialise in 2018. 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.

But can it be harmful to allow kids to rely too much on technology to make and maintain friendships?  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.

Despite this data suggesting that kids aren’t getting more than the three-hour-a-day limit per week, these statistics also show that nearly half of each age group — 90% in the 12-15-year-old category — also watched YouTube videos in addition to TV. The advances in technology now mean that kids can consume visual content on multiple platforms, not just the TV set, which makes ensuring that children are receiving the right amount of real-life conversation more difficult.

According to experts, there are a variety of ways kids can be socially affected by technology. 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.


Ways you can get children more interested in physical activity and social interaction

Although technology isn’t completely detrimental, it is a good idea to ensure that kids are still getting quality time away from social media and iPhones. 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:

  • Ban smartphones and tablets at bedtime — the blue light emitted from devices harms sleep quality which is vital to well-being.
  • Think of fun venues that offer activities for kids. Something different that lets the child work towards a goal and improve a skill — such as snowboarding at an indoor ski slope or rock climbing at a local activity centre — might work best.
  • Search the App Store on your child’s phone to find apps that encourage physical activity.
  • Walk or cycle to school together.
  • Ask your kids not to use phones at the table during mealtimes to make time for conversation.
  • Organise a family hike one weekend every month.
  • 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/moving around.

It seems that technology can be as much a support as it can be a hindrance to socialising and physical health. 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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