Reflections On . . . Technology and the Social Skills of “Digital Natives”

By Paula Walshe

Updated / Monday, 27 September 2021 13:03

Since the onset of COVID-19, many of us have been thrust headlong into various digital environments to a level which could not have been anticipated prior to March 2020. As adults, we may actually remember a time when the internet did not occupy a place on our social radar, nevermind in our jeans pocket. However, things look very different for children today. For many, this digital and technological landscape has been omnipresent from the day they were born, which makes this generation unique as technology permeates practically every aspect of their lives. The term “digital natives” has been coined to capture the essence of this modern phenomenon (O’Neill, 2018). But how exactly is this unique lived experience impacting on this generation’s capacity to develop social skills?

Decades ago, children tended to hone their social skills playing freely with their peers in the fields, streets, and playgrounds located near their homes. According to a recent UK study, however, children now spend roughly 50% less time playing outdoors than their parents did as children (National Trust, 2016). There are a number of factors which may have influenced this reduction in outdoor play, such as parental safety concerns, municipal planning, and socio-economic developments. But it is also evident that technology has a key role to play here. For example, recent research on Irish children by the Growing Up in Ireland (GUI) Longitudinal study found that 9yr old children reported that they would rather use the internet than play with their friends (ESRI, 2019). GUI studies also found that, on average, 7yr olds spent 2hrs a day engaging with digital devices – this statistic later increases by 34% with the average 9yr old spending in excess of 3hrs per day. It is worth noting that these findings do not include any time that is spent watching a television screen. When television viewing is included, these numbers rise to 92% for the average 12yr old (ESRI, 2018).

Within the parameters of normative child development, children begin to develop important social and emotional skills between the age of 3 and 6yrs. These include forming first friendships, learning socially acceptable behaviours, and developing dispositions such as empathy and the ability to see things from another’s point of view. However, the Academy of American Paediatrics (AAP) Council on Communications and Media report that children who engage in an excessive amount of screen-use are shown to exhibit delays in these kinds of social and emotional development (AAP, 2016). Even more worryingly, research has also shown links between technology use in children and negative behaviours and aggression (Epstein, 2015).

When children experience excitement while playing with digital devices, their brains release dopamine, also known as the “feel good” hormone. This hormonal reaction triggers a state of “craving,” a response comparable to that observed in heroin and cocaine use (Kardaras, 2016), as well as other types of addictive behaviours (Brand, et al, 2014). Undoubtedly, there are many advantages associated with childhood engagement with digital devices and technology. The Department of Education and Skills (DES) has shown that this is especially evident in the science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) areas, where benefits have been reported from early childhood right through to university (DES, 2015; 2017a; 2017b).

So, what is the answer?  Like most things in life, the answer is “balance.” 

It is apparent that, as children grow older and become teenagers, technology plays an increasingly important role in their friendships, both in how they form and maintain them. Indeed, many teens would have been completely isolated from their peers during the COVID-19 lockdowns where it not for the social lifeline that technology provided. We are living in a technological era, which is unlikely to change anytime soon. To achieve the necessary balance, we must focus on the amount of time children spend on devices and on the quality of their digital engagement during that time. Rather than engaging in gaming activities, for example, which are designed to keep the player online for as long as possible (Rugai and Hamilton-Ekeke, 2016), it would be far more beneficial for our children to spend their digital time on an educational STEM based activity.

Another important factor to consider is the way we go about teaching our children self-regulation skills around their screen use. We must remember that, as adults, we are role models for the children who look to us for examples of what is socially acceptable and normative behaviour. We must therefore be cognisant of our own screen and technology habits if we want children to develop self-regulation in this area. If we eat our dinner while looking at our phone, type an email on our laptop at the breakfast table, or if we keep scrolling on social media while our children are talking to us, what message are we sending to them about normative social behaviour and healthy technology use?

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of the Museum of Childhood Ireland.

Paula Walshe holds a BA (Hons) in Early Childhood Education and is halfway through her studies for a Master’s Degree in Leadership for Early Childhood Education. In addition to having extensive ECEC managerial experience, she delivers professional QQI accredited training for Early Childhood Education and Care educators with Forus Training. You can learn more about Paula’s work at her website (, where she writes a weekly blog on current topics in Early Childhood Education and Care in Ireland and provides useful professional and academic resources for students and professionals in this sector. LinkedIn: Paula Walshe / Twitter: @digitalearlyed.

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