Research Shows Children Spend More Time On Screens Than They Did Before Pandemic: Here’s Why Parents Should Take Action
Excessive screen time may be physically and mentally harmful to children.
During the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, just about everyone was spending more time looking at their computer screens than before lockdown restrictions. This was especially true for children, many of whom had to do online education. Since restrictions ended, children’s screen time has decreased, but they are still spending more time looking at screens than before the pandemic, according to new research.
According to the analysis, which was conducted by Kaiser Permanente and the Environmental influences on Child Health Outcomes (ECHO), a division of the National Health Institute, the average daily screen time for children between the ages of 4 to 12 was 4.4 hours. During the first months of the pandemic, that average increased to 6.6 hours. After restrictions eased and in-person schooling returned for most children (classified as May 2021 to August 2021 for the analysis), daily screen time clocked in at about 5.5 hours, which was still more than an hour of the pre-pandemic period. The data was collected from 228 parent-child pairs in 3 states (Colorado, California, and South Dakota).
“Most parents can relate to the idea that kids’ screen time increased during the pandemic lockdown period. But our study showed screen time use, mostly for entertainment, remained elevated in 2021 even as restrictions eased,” said the study’s lead author Dr. Monique Hedderson, a research scientist with the Kaiser Permanente Division of Research. “Parents may need to think about rebalancing how their children spend their time.”
Increased Screen Time May Lead to Mental and Physical Health Problems
Dr. Assiamira Ferrara, a co-author of the study and principal investigator of the ECHO study site at Kaiser Permanente Northern California, said that the screen time habits children developed during the pandemic should be a concern to parents.
“This study provides new insights about the increase in screen time that persisted into the latter part of the pandemic,” Ferrara said. “This is alarming because it is possible that once children have increased their screen time, they may not decrease it.”
The effects of screen time on children are still being heavily researched, but current studies indicate there is a slew of negative effects. A 2018 study from the National Institute of Health found that children who spent more than two hours per day on a screen scored lower on language and cognitive tests.
The study also found that children who spent more than seven hours per day experienced physical changes to their brains. For some children, their brain’s cortex (the area responsible for critical thinking and reasoning) became thinner, which is something that normally begins to happen in middle-aged adults. In other words, heavy screen time may cause premature aging of the brain.
And these are just a handful of the many effects researchers have linked to excessive screen time. Other maladies include shorter attention spans, decreased ability to read human faces, decreased impulse control, and less empathy.
The effects can be physical, too. The combination of sedentariness plus poor sleep (too much screen time may affect the sleeping habits of children and adults) creates a cocktail of health problems for children and may also be a factor in the rapidly rising rates of pediatric obesity.
“Screen time greater than 2 hours daily is associated with increased rates of obesity, and studies show that teens who spend 5 hours or more watching TV are five times more likely to become overweight,” wrote Dr. Abby Bleistein in Physicians Weekly. “This association is due in part to increased sedentary behavior, but it is also associated with poor sleep – particularly within 4 hours of bedtime – and with mindless eating behaviors and intake of sugar-sweetened beverages.”
Tips On Handling Screen Time Usage
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends the following daily screen time limits for children up to age 5.
- Under 18 to 24 months: No screentime except for video chatting
- 2 to 5 years: No more than one hourper day “to allow children ample time to engage in other activities important to their health and development and to establish media viewing habits associated with lower risk of obesity later in life.”
- 6 to 12: The AAP hasn’t set a specific time range due to children’s more complex needs, such as education. However, the organization recommendsthat parents limit as much as possible and teach children about potential risks and how to avoid them. However, many guidelines and recommendations from other sources recommend no more than 2 hours per day for children in this age group.
Those numbers are far lower than what the average child now spends on screens per day. That means many parents, especially those of children who have developed severe screen time habits over the past three years, have quite a challenge in front of them. Nonetheless, children’s screen time is a major concern for many parents and there is a great deal of advice available from a wide range of people, including children’s health experts and medical professionals.
Keep TVs, smartphones, and computers out of the bedroom.
From the Mayo Health Clinic: “Children who have electronics in their bedrooms watch more than children who don’t have these in their bedrooms. Monitor your child’s screen time and the websites he or she is visiting by keeping TVs and computers in a common area in your house.”
This may also lead to better sleeping habits, as screen time shortly before going to bed has been linked to sleep problems in children and adults.
No screen time during meals.
Not only does this directly eliminate screen time for a certain period, but it also promotes family togetherness and conversation. And family meals together can have several more positive benefits.
“Some studies have shown that family meals help prevent obesity and lower the chances that children will engage in risky behaviors,” said Ingrid Adams, an Ohio State University Extension specialist in Food, Health, and Human Behavior. “Increases in screen time have been linked with unhealthy habits, such as eating more junk food, physical inactivity, poor sleep patterns, and decreased social interaction.”
Implement a transition plan.
RaisingChildren.net, an Australian parenting website, recommends transition activities to get children off their screens, especially if they are reluctant to turn off their tablets or put down their phones. From the raisingchildren.net site, here are four tips on how to do that:
- Set your child’s expectationsabout a screen time session before the session starts. You could say, ‘You can watch one program’, or ‘You can watch until it’s bath time’.
- Choose your timing.If you can get your child to stop using digital technology during a natural break. For example, try to plan bath time for when your child has finished a level in a game or when a TV show ends.
- Give your child a warningwhen it’s almost time to stop. For example, ‘Sam, it’s time to switch the TV off at the end of the program’, or ‘Sam, you have ten more minutes on the tablet.’
- Give your child time to save what they’re doing.You could offer to help – for example, you might say, ‘Ali, it’s time to stop using the computer now. Do you want me to help you save what you’re doing?’
It sounds obvious and oversaid: go outside, get some fresh air and sunshine, kick around a ball, and stay off the screen. Yes, going outside is a great replacement for staring at a screen for three hours, but a forthcoming study from researchers at Osaka University in Japan found that going outside can reduce some of the harmful effects of too much screen time.
The study looked at previous research that found that 2-year-olds exposed to more than one hour of screen time per day had greater chances of stunted development in communication and living skills (such as personal hygiene, chores, and dressing oneself) and whether outdoor activities could reduce those effects.
According to this new data, children who spent more than one hour per day on screens, but also engaged in regular outdoor activities, had 20% better living skills development than children who did not get outside as often.
“Taken together, our findings indicate that optimizing screen time in young children is really important for appropriate neurodevelopment,” study co-author Tomoko Nishimura said. “We also found that screen time is not related to social outcomes and that even if screen time is relatively high, encouraging more outdoor play time might help to keep kids healthy and developing appropriately.”