So are children playing less because of the widespread adoption of digital devices? Two recent research studies carried out by FK&Y show not. Despite concern about the time children spend online, there is evidence to show that parents are taking a sensible view of the place of digital in their children’s lives. The IKEA Play Report was carried out in 2015 by FK&Y in 12 countries and interviewed nearly 30,000 parents, children aged 7-12 and young people aged 13 to 18. FK&Y’s recent research for the charity Techknowledge for Schools interviewed over 7,000 young people aged 7 to 18 in the UK about their use of the internet. These two studies demonstrate that children are communicating in the way they always have, with their families, with their friends, but they are doing so in a different context. Digital activity does not only involve play, creativity and communication through a wide variety of imaginative and challenging apps, but it can enhance children’s ability to express themselves, act out difficult emotions and feel empowered by finding out information for themselves.
Both the Techknowledge for Schools research and the Play Report show that children are playing a wide variety of games online, often involving collecting, changing and adapting scenarios to suit what they want to do, and communicating with friends and family. As an 11 year old girl taking part in the Play Report told us in Sweden:
“Myself and Emelie, my cousin, play on FaceTime. She lives in Stockholm and I live in Skovde, but it feels like we are in the same place.”
But parents face a dilemma. There is evidence to show that parents are sometimes too busy or preoccupied to play with their children. 47% of children aged 7-12 in the IKEA Play Report would like their parents to spend more time playing with them (compared to 38% in 2009). Half (51%) of children aged 7-12 say ‘my parents always seem to be in a rush’. And (31%) of parents agree that ‘when I play with my children I am often too stressed to enjoy it’ (25% in 2009). And while communication in families takes place as it always has, it is often through social media. 23% of parents and 23% of 13-18 year olds, and 17% of 7-12 year olds agree ‘Sometimes I only talk to my family at home through text messaging or social media’. And two in five parents and young people would like to talk face to face as a family more.
So has play been replaced with a preoccupation with digital? Parents, teachers and child experts express alarm at the amount of time children are spending online, and certainly there is evidence to show that obsessive use of digital is unhealthy for children both physically and mentally. But digital can also be a shared activity. The Play Report found that 95% of UK parents report regularly using media devices as a family, and around half (52%) of parents agree ‘play can include using Tablets, smartphones or computers’. Importantly, 85% (Index: 71%) of UK parents think that home should be a place for fun and play. Increasingly it seems parents and children themselves are setting boundaries. 72% of parents and 43% of children and young people agree: ‘I think there should be times at home when we don’t use our mobile devices’.
Digital has changed play, it can lead to creative and imaginative worlds being enacted online and it frequently includes communicating in this way with friends and family. But both children and parents are recognising the importance of face to face communication and play away from digital devices, and the need to ensure play is “entered into voluntarily and is lacking in external force or compulsion”. This is essential for the wellbeing of children and family life.
Dr Barbie Clarke, Managing Director of Family, Kids & Youth, is a trained child and adolescent therapist. Her PhD at Cambridge was in child and adolescent psychosocial development and much of her work has looked at the digital world of young people.