Dear Pandemic is thrilled to introduce this week’s Nerdy Guest, Dr. Pamela Hurst-Della Pietra. She is President and founder of Children and Screens: Institute of Digital Media and Child Development. Using her medical degree, non-profit experience, philanthropic resources, and a long-standing interest in media and children, Dr. Hurst-Della Pietra has become one of the field’s leading conveners, curators, and grant-makers.
1. How has the COVID-19 pandemic changed screen use patterns among children?
Kids, like the rest of us, have been forced to conduct more of their lives online, including both virtual school and virtual play. Intuitively, we would expect to see their screen time increase, and early data indicates that use has increased dramatically. A survey conducted by ParentsTogether, a nonprofit parent organization, found that almost half of respondents’ children spent more than six hours per day on screens. This number represents a 500% increase, compared to pre-COVID practices. Similarly, an analysis by the data intelligence firm Morning Consult indicates that 70% of children are spending a minimum four hours per day in front of their screens. Further, a report by Nielson found that, while TV-viewing has increased across all age groups in the U.S., this bump is particularly profound among children and teens. The analysis shows that, in kids aged 6 to 17, midday TV viewing has increased by over 300%, compared to last year. Videogame use has also increased dramatically, a trend that appears to be driven by gaming among boys.
More peer-reviewed research is needed to determine precisely how screen patterns have changed across age groups and how these changes are affecting children’s mental and physical health. To that end, Children and Screens has funded over $250,000 in grants that support three studies that will enhance understanding of the effects of media on kids before, during and after COVID-19.
2. What are the consequences of this additional screen time?
Existing research has established links between certain media habits and obesity, impaired sleep, academic performance, aggression, sexual risk-taking, depression, and anxiety.
Mental, cognitive and physical health effects depend on a number of factors. The precise consequences of increased device use depend on the child’s age, the type and quality of the screen content, the context of the child’s digital media use, how the child is engaging with apps, platforms, and games, and the characteristics of the individual child.
Socio-emotional health: One might expect that increased screen time during the COVID-19 pandemic could have both positive and negative effects. There is not enough research to support this hypothesis, but it would be expected that impacts of digital media use during the lockdown will be nuanced, depending on the child and the way they are using screens. It is likely that gaming and social media have been a lifeline for kids who do not have access to other social experiences.
As background, a 2017 study, for example, found that increased screen use is associated with lower well-being, as well as increased depression and suicide among children in grades 8-12–an effect that is particularly pronounced in females. As ad targeting becomes more prevalent and kids increasingly rely on social media to combat pandemic loneliness, young women may also become more susceptible to images that normalize eating disorders and other unhealthy behaviors. High levels of social media use has also been associated with lower levels of happiness in children aged 10-15. Further, it is possible that children have been adversely impacted by ongoing traumatic events in the news, including pandemic-related deaths, graphic violence, and negative political coverage. Frequent exposure to pandemic-related news and social media has been shown to be a risk factor for mental health concerns in adults. Though researchers have not determined whether such news is contributing to increasing mental health challenges among youth, it is certainly an important factor to consider.
Through an extensive review, Prime and colleagues concluded that COVID-19 represents a serious threat to the wellbeing of children and families. Troublingly, the authors expect the effect to be strongest among already-vulnerable communities, such as those experiencing economic hardship, racism, and mental health challenges. Supporting this conclusion, a study launched earling in the pandemic found that depressed and overburdened parents reported increased conflict in their parent-child relationships. Given what we already know about digital media’s impact on mental health, it is possible that increased household screen time may contribute to, or exacerbate, conflict in the home.
Physical: There is no doubt that the ability to use screens during the pandemic is keeping families safe. However, during COVID, screen time has replaced more active pastimes, a phenomenon that could have long-term effects on children’s health. One study in Canada found that only 4.8% of children were moving the recommended amount during the initial months of COVID-19 lockdown. Consequences of declining physical activity and decreased exposure to the outdoors include: lower levels of vitamin D; myopia (near-sightedness); obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease. Indeed, there has been some conjecture that COVID-19 will lead to increased child obesity, in part due to increased screen time. In addition to these physical changes, COVID-related increases in screen time may lead to poor mental health, including symptoms of anxiety and depression. A Canadian study found that adolescents with more pandemic-related stress had higher rates of depression, especially when they spent more time on social media. Surprisingly, increased time on virtual platforms with friends was also linked to higher rates of depression, a finding that underscores the importance of safe, off-line interactions.
Learning and Cognition: The transition to online learning represents another potential threat to children’s cognitive and emotional health. Additionally, use of certain technologies can lead to increased impulsivity and compulsivity in adolescents. As for younger kids, in 2019, Madigan and colleagues found that higher levels of screen time was associated with poor achievement of developmental milestones in children aged 24 to 36 months. In addition to changes in behavior and mental health, researchers have found evidence that screen use can affect brain physiology. One study showed that, in children ages 3 to 5, excess screen use can lead to a decrease in the brain’s white matter integrity; and a national multi-center longitudinal study found a correlation between media use and premature thinning of the cerebral cortex in almost 5,000 older children. (Of course, that is not to say that a little extra screen time will rot a child’s brain!) In addition to academic decline, this shift learning has also yielded higher rates of cheating.
Even after the world emerges from the COVID-19 crisis, its effects will linger. Children who have replaced sports with e-sports or gaming, for example, may find that they prefer their new online world; after many months of connecting through social media, teens may experience high levels of anxiety when they begin to, once again, interact in large groups; and kids who spent their first years of school in front of a device may require time to adjust to in-person schooling. More broadly, increased digital media use during COVID-19 may contribute to higher levels of problematic internet use and addiction down the line. It may also yield inattention problems and other mental health concerns in some children. Of course, we cannot anticipate with certainty what the long-term effects of COVID-19 will be–with respect to media habits or otherwise–but the consequences will, no doubt, be profound.
3. What are some tips that parents, educators, and families can adopt to help mitigate any of these consequences?
Fortunately, families can take steps to mitigate the negative consequences of increased screen time during the pandemic. First, parents should set reasonable boundaries with respect to when and how children use their devices. They might, for example, restrict screen use in the bedroom and in the hours approaching bedtime, encourage breaks to enjoy non-screen activities, and create a screen schedule for the household. To keep reinforcing these habits, families can take advantage of apps that track and limit screen use, such as Apple Screen Time, Google Family Link, Moment, and Flipd. Children can benefit from reading traditional books, rather than e-books, for educational and recreational reading. Consider engaging children in other off-screen activities: play board games, go on walks, cook together, craft together, or pursue whatever non-screen activities your family prefers. These strategies can improve sleep quality, academic performance, emotional health, and physical health.
In addition to setting boundaries on screen use, parents can teach children how to cope with negative emotions and boredom in ways that do not involve digital media. They should also be mindful of their own screen habits and model a healthy approach to digital media for their children. Finally, though it is important that children take breaks from their devices, parents should recognize that screens can play a critical role in helping kids maintain social connections amidst physical isolation. This can be achieved through activities like virtual sleepovers, watch parties, and book clubs. Educators can also help promote children’s psychological wellbeing by assigning activities that require peer collaboration.
In consultation with experts in the field, Children and Screens has compiled a series of tips for parents navigating various aspects of screen use, as well as a guide for managing the challenges of at-home learning during COVID-19. Parents should not hesitate to seek professional help and guidance from their school administrators if they are struggling to create healthy habits and maintain social connections during this global crisis.