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A good childhood in a digital age?

Gemma Madle

13 Dec, 2023


What piece of technology defines your teenage years? We all love a bit of nostalgia but we’re also acutely aware of how different life is for young people today and how technology is propelling us into the future.


What piece of technology defines your teenage years? This was the question guest blogger Rev. Dr. Diana Stretton was invited to reflect on as part of a recent Youthscape Essentials session on growing up digital. We all love a bit of nostalgia but we’re also acutely aware of how different life is for young people today and how technology is propelling us into the future. So join Diana as she wanders down memory lane, reflects on where we’ve ended up and explores where we might be heading!

Does more digital engagement mean less happiness?

My particular nostalgia trip was my CD Walkman, which was almost impossible to use on the go as it needed to be held flat to prevent the CD from skipping. At a similar age I remember a maths teacher telling my class that we needed to be able to do sums in our heads because we wouldn’t always have a calculator in our pockets. How different the picture is for young people now, with a whole internet of music available at the touch of a button and not only a calculator but an encyclopaedia constantly to hand. In 2021, 94% of young people relied on a smartphone as their main way to access the interneti - the way that we interact with information, the world and each other has changed beyond anything that my teenage self would have imagined.

As we each strolled down our own technological memory lane we were encouraged to reflect on what the increase in digital engagement means for young people now. It is easy to jump to the negative, especially in the light of reports that young people are increasingly unhappy with their lives and uncertain about their futures. The Good Childhood Report from the Children’s Society, bringing together data from the Understanding Societyii research and the Children’s Society’s household survey, highlights that for young people from 10-15 their mean happiness with life as a whole (on a scale of 0-10) has decreased from 8.17 in 2009-10 to 7.62 in 2020-21, with almost a quarter now unhappy with at least one aspect of their lifeiii. In 2023, 1 in 10 young people had overall low wellbeingiv. It might be assumed that there has been a sudden downward spiral relating to the conditions during the pandemic, but these trends have been evident for some time.

Unsurprisingly, there is evidence linking decreased wellbeing to social media. Research with young people aged 10-14 in Germany and their parents associates daily social media use with increased negative self-worthv. There is also evidence of there being particular times when young people are especially sensitive to longer-term impacts from social media, with higher social media use in females aged 11-13 and males aged 14-15 predicting lower life satisfaction ratings one year latervi. Data reviewed in Youthscape’s recent Trend Report showed that increased time online leads to exposure to more negative experiencesvii, and the increase in cyber-bullying means that bullying behaviour follows young people in a way that it hasn’t beforeviii.

Changing connections

However, this shouldn’t lead us to throw away the smartphones in despair, because there is also evidence that social media can help young people feel closer to their friends and generate deeper connectionsix. For young people who might be exploring their identity, for example relating to their gender or sexuality, connections online may also provide information and a place to share their stories which is harder to find in their immediate communityx. As humans we are beings who are made to be interconnected with each other in relationships, and technology used well can be one of the ways that relationships are nurtured.

It is also clear that simply trying to switch off the digital age won’t work. We are past the point where we can turn it off and on again – it is here to stay, and young people are embracing it. If we look to the new developments in AI then young people in schools are more positive about the use of AI as a tool than their teachers, with a recent survey showing 68% of students believing that they are getting better grades because of AIxi. Use of AI in schools to help personalise learning has the potential to grant greater support to students with special educational needs and allow teachers to deliver more personalised contentxii. Young people are embracing the new tools and are also able to be suspicious of inaccurate content. As the latest edition of The Story highlights, 7 out of 10 young people are confident in judging misinformation online and 2 out of 3 correctly identified a fake social media profile as fakexiii. Given that AI is being used by young people, guiding them towards ethical applications seems to be a better approach to the emerging technology.

Thriving, not just surviving, in the digital age

So, what does a good childhood look like in a digital age? It is not as simple as either accepting all new developments at face value or attempting to rewind to a more analogue era. Maybe we should be taking our lead from young people who use social media and AI well, engaging with the new developments but with a suspicious eye when needed. Using social media to nurture relationships rather than impersonal scrolling. The American Psychological Association has provided guidance to help encourage young people to develop positive and healthy habits in relation to social media, and key to that is supportive guidance from adultsxiv. It will not be sufficient for us to say that we don’t understand the new technology, we will have to learn what healthy interactions with social media and AI look like to support our young people to engage with these habits.

As Mark Russell, Chief Executive of The Children’s Society says in the introduction to The Good Childhood Report, we want children and young people to be able to ‘thrive, not just survive’xv. I wonder as people working with young people whether our interactions about the online world encourage survival rather than thriving. In my role I hope to be able to support young people in how they find their place in the world and develop relationships, and helping them to navigate the digital world is an integral part of that. I have a smartphone in my pocket, and I am reasonably literate in life online, but the evidence tells me that I cannot stop learning. I, and I expect all of us who have a heart to support young people, need to keep building our own knowledge of the digital landscape if we are going to be positive role models and helpful guides.

i Youthscape Translating God Trend Report [accessed 21 November 2023]

ii Understanding Society, The UK Household Longitudinal Study [accessed 21 November 2023]
iii The Children’s Society, The Good Childhood Report, p.33 [accessed 21 November 2023]
iv The Children’s Society, The Good Childhood Report, p.38 [accessed 21 November 2023]
v Irmer, A., Schmiedek, F. ‘Associations between youth’s daily social media use and well-being are mediated by upward comparisons’, Commun Psychol 1, 12 (2023) https://doi.org/10.1038/s44271... [accessed 20 November 2023]
vi Orben, A. and others, ‘Windows of developmental sensitivity to social media’, Nat Commun 13, 1649 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467... [accessed 20 November 2023]
vii Youthscape Translating God Trend Report [accessed 21 November 2023]
viii Youthscape Translating God Trend Report [accessed 21 November 2023]
ix Youthscape Translating God Trend Report [accessed 21 November 2023]
x Craig, S.L. and others, ‘Can Social Media Participation Enhance LGBTQ+ Youth Well-Being?’, Social Media & Society 7, 1 (2021) https://doi.org/10.1177/205630... [accessed 20 November 2023]
xi ‘AI increasingly used by students to do their school work and many teachers can't tell’ [accessed 21 November 2023]
xii Reiss, M.L., ‘The use of AI in education: Practicalities and ethical considerations’, London Review of Education 19, 1 (2021) DOI: 10.14324/LRE.19.1.05 [accessed 20 November 2023]
xiii ‘AI & young people: Questions for youth ministry’, The Story 26 (2023) [accessed 11 December 2023]
xiv Weir, K., ‘Social media brings benefits and risks to teens. Here’s how psychology can help identify a path forward’, Monitor on Psychology, 54, 6 (2023) [accessed 21 November 2023]
xv The Children’s Society, The Good Childhood Report, p.4 [accessed 21 November 2023]

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