Survey reveals transformation of childhoods in a digital world

The number of young teenagers who play outside, read books or get enough sleep has dropped sharply in comparison to teenagers from previous decades, a startling new survey from Barnardo's reveals.

Less than half (48%) of teenagers aged 13 to 15 play outdoors compared to more than three quarters (77%) of 18-24 year olds and nearly nine in 10 (87%) of 45-54 year olds when they were that age.

The study found barely half (54%) of those aged 13-15 read books. By contrast, 79% of adults aged over 18 said they did so when they were young teenagers.

And just half (50%) of today’s young teenagers believe they get sufficient sleep against two-thirds (66%) of adults who said they did so when they were aged 13-15.

The YouGov survey of more than 2,300 people for the UK’s largest children’s charity reveals the pronounced effects – both good and bad – that the rapid growth of digital in recent years is having on young lives.

Access to the internet helps three-quarters (75%) of today’s young teenagers to do their schoolwork, compared with 44% of 25-34 year olds when they were the same age.

But a quarter (25%) of youngsters aged 13-15 said they had communicated with a stranger on social media. This included 27% of girls and 33% of 14 year olds.


The poll results coincide with the release of Childhoods in a Digital World, a paper by Barnardo’s that examines both the challenges and opportunities to children from the rapidly evolving technological world.

Barnardo’s Scotland director Martin Crewe said: “This survey shows how quickly the growth of digital is changing our children’s behaviour.

“Whilst it’s fantastic that new technologies are broadening horizons and providing new opportunities, it’s vital we stay ahead of the digital curve to anticipate the problems it poses to future generations.

“To help children thrive in this brave new world, we need to equip them with the skills and knowledge to navigate this digital landscape.”

The study underlines the growing influence of social media and digital devices on relationships.

Almost as many young teenagers or their friends have dumped a boyfriend or girlfriend by text message or on WhatsApp (25%) as have done so in person (30%). Nearly one in seven (14%) had done so on Snapchat, 7% on Facebook and 2% by email.


But the study also found almost two-fifths (38%) of 13-15 year olds have never had a boyfriend or girlfriend compared to a third (33%) of adults when that age.

The poll confirms the dwindling popularity of the disco and the youth club to meet new people.

Just one in 20 (5%) of 13-15 year olds said they had met new people at a disco and just 11% at a youth club. By contrast 37% of adults aged 45-54 met new people at disco when they were young teenagers and 26% did so at a youth club.

However, the young teenagers of today are more likely than previous generations to confide in their parents, friends and teachers when they have a difficult or embarrassing issue.

More than three-quarters (77%) of 13-15 year olds said they would talk to a parent, more than two-thirds (67%) to a friend and almost a quarter (23%) to a teacher. For adults when they were that age, it was 36%, 52% and 11% respectively.

And while almost a fifth (19%) of adults would not have felt able to seek help when they were young teenagers, just 5% of those aged 13-15 today said they would not ask for advice and support.


The growing aversion of young teenagers to play outdoors is underlined by their choice of favourite toys, which are dominated by digital device such as iPhones, iPads and Xboxes. By contrast, many adults cited bicycles, roller skates, footballs and space hoppers as their favourite possessions when they were aged 13-15.

Other findings from the survey include:

· Almost seven in ten (69%) of girls aged 13-15 take selfies

· Four out of five (80%) young teenage boys play online games at home or a friend’s house

· Barely two-fifths (42%) of young teenage boys read books compared to 73% of male adults when they were aged 13-15

· More than half (55%) of adults sent postcards when they were aged 13-15 against 11% of today’s young teenagers


· As young teenagers, almost a fifth (18%) of those now aged 35-44 said that they would have sought advice on difficult or embarrassing issues from magazine agony aunts. Just 4% of today’s young teenagers look for help from magazines.