Children are racking up hours of screen time since the pandemic began, and there doesn’t appear to be an end in sight.
Adolescents reported that they spent nearly eight hours a day in front of a screen, double their pre-pandemic estimates of nearly four hours per day, according to a study published Monday in JAMA Pediatrics.
Kids’ screen time did not include time spent online for virtual classes. The study focused on recreational activities like streaming, gaming, social media, texting, video chatting and surfing the web.
Adolescents who reported more screen time also reported suffering in other areas of their lives, said lead study author Dr. Jason Nagata, assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of California in San Francisco.
Screen use and mental health
“More screen time was linked to poorer mental health and greater stress among teens,” Nagata said.
Some 5,412 adolescents between the ages of 10 and 14 years old were asked about their screen-time habits. Researchers found the children spent an average of 7.7 hours a day in front of a screen, up from pre-pandemic estimates of 3.8 hours per day.
Participants were asked to rank their mental health from “much worse” to “much better” compared to the previous week. They were also asked four questions about their perceived stress, such as “In the last month, how often have you felt difficulties were piling up so high that you could not overcome them?”
The link between higher screen usage and stress was surprising, said Dr. Jenny Radesky, a practicing developmental behavioral pediatrician and assistant professor of pediatrics at Michigan Medicine C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital in Ann Arbor, who was not involved in the study.
“Most families were hoping that connecting with friends through gaming or social media, or relaxing watching videos, would be a stress reliever during the pandemic,” she said.
The negative correlation could be due to “doomscrolling,” Radesky said. That’s when people scroll on social media looking at negative news for long periods of time. Higher hours of screen time could have also given children less time to participate in activities that “help support resilience during difficult times, including sleep, mindfulness, or physical activity,” she added.
Conversely, participants who reported less screen time were found to have stronger family and friend relationships and more coping behaviors.
The adolescents were asked about the quality of their family and friend relationships. They were also given a list of nine coping behaviors such as exercising and meditating and asked to share how much they participated in each activity.
Set screen-time limits
As the pandemic subsides, higher screen times won’t be going away anytime soon, Nagata predicted.
Academic and social activities are beginning to transition to in-person again, but the increased availability of online options means “screen usage is likely to remain higher than pre-pandemic levels,” he said.
Nagata recommended adults set screen-time limits for their children and encourage them to avoid screens before bedtime.
Model device-free behavior
“Parents should also lead by example by putting away their devices during family time and meals, and not frequently interrupting their interactions with their kids to attend to their devices,” said Michael Robb, senior director of research at Common Sense Media, who wasn’t involved in the study.
Many videos and online games are designed with features to suck the user in and keep them coming back each day, such as autoplay and notifications, Radesky said. Grown-ups can play alongside their children to determine what specific features are being utilized so they can turn them off, she said.
Rather than counting the minutes children spend in front of screens, adults should focus on making sure their children complete the tasks they need to like homework and chores, Robb recommended. After those are accounted for, then focus on managing screen time.