Do Smartphones Stunt Social Skills?

Helping kids build interpersonal skills in the digital age

Words by
Melissa Strange

DEC 01, 2021

Do Smartphones Stunt Social Skills?

Helping kids build interpersonal skills in the digital age

Smartphones Can Be a Barrier to Connection

In a time of social and political division, the need to connect and to show our kids how to connect with others is imperative. Have smartphones changed the way we have conversations? MIT sociologist Dr. Sherry Turkle has spent the last two decades researching how our increasing dependence on devices has created barriers to connection. She found that nearly 90% of people attended to an unrelated matter on their phones during conversations, while 80% admitted that this deteriorated the ongoing interaction (Suttie, 2015). Children being raised in a digital age may consider our example to be the norm.

“Success is also influenced by people’s capacities to maintain social relationships, regulate emotions, and manage goals & learning.”

—Dr. Christopher Soto, Department of Psychology, Colby College

The Keys to Success—More than Just Smarts

Social-emotional intelligence influences how we interact with peers, caregivers, and society at large. These skills include identifying and communicating feelings, empathizing, and regulating one’s own emotions (Social-Emotional Development, n.d.). Developing these skills throughout childhood is successful when parents, teachers, and the extended social circle model these behaviors. Providing kids with opportunities to practice is crucial, and as it turns out, vital to success.

Intelligence and opportunity have long been considered the most important factors in predicting success. Experts in psychology have identified social skills to be a vital contributing component. “Success is also influenced by people’s capacities to maintain social relationships, regulate emotions, and manage goals and learning-directed behaviors” (Soto, 2021). And as it turns out, social skills must be learned and are not personality traits. Healthy communication and exposure to these behaviors will help our kids form deep connections with those around them.

Smartphones Get In the Way

Smartphones generally draw us in, demanding our attention and focus. Having a phone in hand makes it hard for many people to separate themselves from the screen. Sadly, heavy smartphone use contributes to social isolation and the social anxiety that follows (Przepiorka, 2021, p.8). Many users have developed nomophobia, a fear of detaching from mobile phone connectivity (Bhattacharya, 2019, p.1297). With constant smartphone usage, reading notifications, and “an elevated sense of being online” (Przepiorka, 2021, p.8), device dependence is guaranteed while social anxiety takes over.

Boundaries + Experience = Competence

“Respectfully listening to your child’s voice will create an atmosphere of safety and is more likely to lead to compliance.”

—Seraphim Dempsey, Economic and Social Research Institute, Dublin, Ireland

Setting expectations, boundaries, and providing kids with experiences help them develop connection skills, but having these conversations about tech limits can be tough. Parents who create an active parent-child discussion on the topic see success. Research has shown that patiently hearing and reasonably discussing a child’s opinion creates an atmosphere where they are more likely to understand and abide by technology-safe guidelines (Dempsey et al., 2020). Together, your family can create a technology plan that will help them avoid smartphone over-reliance and the accompanying social regress. 

When parents follow the family plan and avoid problematic behavior like phubbing (ignoring someone to pay attention to one’s phone), it may lead to a lower rate of smartphone dependency in children because they mimic what they see and understand. (Przepiorka, 2021, p.3). Establishing a family culture that includes when and why media access is appropriate will help create second-nature boundaries for safe tech use.

Ideas for Social Experiences

Use the following ideas as a starting point and brainstorm some activities together:

  • Ask: Interview a grandparent or a neighbor. Help your child come up with questions they sincerely want to know. Model asking deeper questions and showing empathy.
  • Explore: Visit a park and encourage your child to play with new friends.
  • Entertain: Host a playdate. Limit screen time and encourage the kids to use their imagination.
  • Notice: Play charades. Show kids how we can look for clues in expressions and body language.

Like the post? Leave a comment!

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


Your comment has been submitted for review! We will notify you when it has been approved and posted!

Thank you!

Share this article with...