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The gender gap in gaming is closing as more kids get smartphones

REUTERS/Brendan McDermid
Down the rabbit hole.
  • Jenny Anderson
By Jenny Anderson

Senior reporter, Editor of How to be Human

Girl gamers are on the rise. According to the latest report(pdf) on children’s media use by the UK’s communications regulator, Ofcom, 48% of British girls aged five to 15 now play games online, up from 39% in 2018.

There are still fewer girls on these platforms than boys, 71% of whom play (unchanged from 2018). Boys also spend almost twice as long—14 hours and 36 minutes—playing online each week, compared to girls’ 7 hours and 30 minutes. Boys said they played FIFA, Crew 2, Destiny 2, and Fortnite. The girls reported that they played Candy Crush, Aqua Park, and Piano Tiles.

Kids’ media use has always been a bit bifurcated by gender. According to a 2018 poll from Pew, girls are more likely than boys to say they spend too much time on social media (47% vs. 35%), and boys are about four times as likely to say they spend too much time playing video games (41% of boys and 11% of girls). The latest research shows they might be converging.

Parents don’t seem thrilled about their kids’ growing time on the internet, for gaming or any other purposes. Ofcom’s 2019 Children’s Media Use and Attitudes report, based on 3,500 interviews with children ages five to 15 and parents in the UK, found that 55% of parents believe the benefits their child gets from being online outweigh the risks, down from 65% in 2015. 

And yet, in spite of fears about what happens in kids’ digital lives, parents are letting their children get online earlier: 50% of 10-year-olds now have smartphones, compared to 30% in 2015. More than 60% of 3- to 7-year-olds have tablets. Overall, a greater share of each age group is getting their own device at younger ages.

Parents often feel at a loss when it comes to managing their kids’ tech, from the “right” age to give them devices, to how to monitor what they do afterwards (there’s also the issue of their own use). Research is divided on the impact of technology on children’s wellbeing: psychologist Jean Twenge says excessive mobile device use can drive depression, unhappiness, and suicidal thoughts; psychologists Amy Orben and Andrew Przybylski found that digital technology use could only explain roughly 0.4% of adolescent wellbeing, roughly the same effect as eating potatoes (pdf). 

At the same time, many have a gnawing sense that allowing kids online so early is a bit like sending them into the Wild West, unknown to the parents themselves and unregulated by tech companies. Kids are seeing more hateful content online, defined in Ofcom’s report as “content directed at particular groups of people, based on, for instance, their gender, religion, disability, sexuality or gender identity”: 51% of online 12- to 15-year-olds  saw hateful content in the last year, an increase from 34% in 2016.

Kids are also using a broader array of platforms, most of which have age limits that children are happily defying. More than half—62%—of kids reported using WhatsApp, up from 43% in 2018 (age requirement: 16). Kids’ favorite platforms were Facebook (69% reported using it), Snapchat (68%), and Instagram (66%) (minimum age: 13).

But the UK research also presented evidence that kids are using their time online to make the world a better place. Eighteen percent of 12- to15-year-olds across the UK say they use social media for activism, or to express support for causes and organizations. One in 10 signed petitions on social media (Ofcom dubbed this the “Greta effect”).

Kids are also gravitating to micro (1,000-1 million followers) or nano (100-5,000 followers) influencers, eschewing the big league-influencers, like PewDiePie with 103 million followers, that today’s young adults might have favored. “Children described these [smaller-scale] influencers as more relatable and directly engaged with their followers, while others described being able to imitate their content on their own social media channels,” the report said. This suggests kids are connecting to their own interests and communities.

Another cause for a bit of optimism? Parents are realizing that they need to be involved. The number of parents who said they are likely to go online themselves for support and information about keeping their children safe nearly doubled, from 12% in 2018 to 21% in 2019.

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