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by Killian Mullan
7th January 2022

Last autumn, the Children’s Commissioner for England, Dame Rachel de Souza DBE, published the first results from The Big Ask, a major online survey asking children aged 9–17 questions about their hopes and fears and aspirations.

The report presented extensive insights into children’s lives relating to, among other things, their families, communities and their health. It would be impossible to avoid questions relating to how children spend time and the report also examined children’s views on education and work, but notably The Big Ask highlighted children’s desire to have the opportunity to spend time engaging in a range of activities outside the home, to have more clubs in their local area and interesting play areas.

It makes perfect sense to interpret this, at least in part, as a direct reaction to the pandemic that has restricted daily life over the past couple of years. Yet in my book A Child’s Day, I tracked change over the past few decades in children’s (8–16 years) time use and found that children’s daily lives were becoming increasingly oriented toward home-based activities before the pandemic.

This change was most pronounced on days when children were not at school showing that, even when not locked down, children were increasingly spending time at home, and spending less time walking, cycling and playing outside the home. Time in sporting activities increased, but not sufficiently to offset decreases in time in other comparatively unstructured physical activities. Though certainly nowhere near as dramatic as the changes to daily life necessitated by our response to the pandemic, these changes nonetheless point to a longer-term gradual shift towards more home-based lives for children.

The role of technological change and the perceived dominance of screens in children’s daily lives in driving these changes has been a subject of persistent debate. Having been a source of generalised concern with respect to children’s wellbeing, however, the pandemic meant that having access to devices such as laptops and tablets along with reliable internet connections became a basic requirement for children to continue to engage in education and maintain social connections. But the story of the influence of the proliferation of screen-based devices never fitted a simple narrative about screens taking over children’s lives with wholly negative consequences. Children were certainly spending a substantial amount of time using devices, but this overlapped with time in a wide range of different activities, with no discernible adverse impact on time spent studying or on physical activities. Time using devices was, however, linked to spending more time alone (at home) which had increased significantly since 2000.

Considering these changes, I argue in A Child’s Day, now available in paperback, that we need to shift the response to concerns about children’s time use away from simple instructions to children (often directed at their parents) to spend more or less time on this or that key activity towards thinking about the kinds of environments needed, and the policies and investment required, to foster more balance and variety in the kinds of activities and social interactions children can engage in as a matter of daily routine. In a similar vein, in The Big Ask report, the Children’s Commissioner has drawn attention to the success of initiatives designed to offer safe spaces for children to spend time outside their homes, pointing out that it is crucial we provide these for children and young people to enjoy and flourish.

To accompany the publication of A Child’s Day in paperback, I developed an interactive web-based application. The app consists of engaging interactive data visualisations allowing users to easily explore various aspects of children’s time use including their activities, who they spend time with and where they spend time, their time using devices such as smartphones and tablets, and their subjective enjoyment of time in different activities.


Screenshots from the app ‘Exploring change in children’s time use‘.

Following the analysis in the book, users of the app can see how children’s time use has changed over the past few decades and examine differences between younger and older children, between girls and boys, and differences associated with parent education and employment. My intention with the app is to put the data within closer reach of those interested in understanding more about how children’s time use has changed or remained the same, including for children and young people themselves to explore, question and contribute to debates concerning their time use.

It is telling that the current Children’s Commissioner for England began her tenure with a major data collection exercise – to ‘listen’ to the voices of children. This is a vital element in any strategy to address their concerns and to provide safe and supportive environments for children to flourish. How children spend time will continue to be at the centre of debates in connection with their health, development and wellbeing, and we need to continue to listen here too. Currently in the UK we have high-quality, nationally representative time-diary data about children’s time use, provided by children themselves, up to 2015. Some might question the usefulness or value of these data considering how much time has elapsed, and of course considering the potential long-lasting impacts of the pandemic. They stand nonetheless as the best source of information we have about children’s daily time use patterns in the UK and will provide a crucial basis against which to compare children’s time use in the future.

Killian Mullan is a lecturer in sociology and policy at Aston University, Birmingham. His work focuses on children and young people’s time use in cross-national and longitudinal perspectives.

 

The Unequal Pandemic cover.A Child’s Day: A Comprehensive Analysis of Change in Children’s Time Use in the UK by Killian Mullan is available to order and is now available in paperback on the Bristol University Press website here for £19.99.

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