Helping Families Manage Increased Screen Time During a Global Pandemic

The spread of the global COVID-19 pandemic has created plenty of anxieties for parents trying to balance work and family responsibilities amid ever-changing uncertainties. In this unprecedented time of hunkering down and holing up, parents are relying more than ever on technology to help carry the educational and recreational load. All across the world school buildings have been shuttered and unnecessary travel is prohibited. As a result, the family home has become the school, the gym, the playground, and the office.

To carry on with instructional activities remotely, teachers are utilizing a variety of online platforms to connect with their students. We receive multiple emails each school day from our son’s teachers with activities, videos, and general check-ins. Google Classroom assignments and Zoom get-togethers are the new educational norm. While the debate about the benefits and risks of technology for education has ebbed and flowed over the last two decades, there is little doubt that screens are saving schools right now.

There is little doubt that screens are saving schools right now.

Parents, too, are relying on technology more than ever to get through the day. Many now work from home and need a way to distract their children so they can get through those emails or that important web conference. Last week I spent nearly 5 hours of one day in various virtual meetings! It was great to be able to continue collaborating with others without risking my health (or theirs). And now that many parents have become part-time teaching assistants, homeschooling responsibilities are more bearable when you can Google “Common Core Math,” or better yet, just send a quick message to your kid’s actual math teacher for real-time explanation.

In many ways, screens have allowed us to stay close to others, without having to violate six-foot separation regulations. Convening in virtual happy hours, FaceTiming loved-ones, or creating and sharing funny TikTok videos can help pass the time in this era of physical—though not social—isolation. I can’t be with my friends, but I can keep up with how they are managing via various social media accounts. I must be doing a good job of this because last week I was notified by my iPhone that my screen time had increased 103% from the week before! And between his schoolwork, Mario Kart, Messenger Kids, and YouTube videos about frogs, my kid has stared at a screen for more hours this past week than in the previous month altogether. The point is we and our kids are spending a lot of time in front of screens these days.

Don’t panic or feel guilty.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Last spring we surveyed 2,500 middle and high school students from around the United States about the amount and type of screen time they get each day. We asked them to estimate how many hours per day, on average, they participated in various activities. For example, youth spent about 2 ½ hours on both social media and texting. Not surprisingly, they spent more time in front of a screen when school wasn’t in session (except for going online for schoolwork). Students spent about an extra hour watching videos on YouTube and Netflix, and playing video games, on days they didn’t have school.

Students spent about an extra hour watching videos on YouTube and Netflix, and playing video games, on days they didn’t have school.

The good news is that they also reported that they averaged just shy of eight hours of sleep each night, getting about a half-hour more on non-school days. They also exercised close to two hours each day, whether school was in session or not. To be clear, these are self-reported estimates. It would be interesting to look at actual device data. And there is definitely some overlap in these activities. That is, a child could have been watching a Netflix show while texting or using social media.

Despite understandable concerns by parents, there isn’t any solid evidence anywhere that screen time in and of itself is detrimental to kids. Yes, hours of inactivity is not good. And yes, if screen time interrupts sleep, that could be a problem.

It is also certainly possible that online misbehaviors will increase with more time online. In our data, increased time online was positively correlated with cyberbullying and sexting. That said, arguing that screen time leads to cyberbullying is like saying school time leads to face-to-face bullying. Absent anything else, yes, there could be more problems when more kids are online for extended periods, just like there is more bullying at school during the academic term than during summer–because the kids are together. But all of this ignores other possible factors, such as the nature of the online activity and adult supervision/mentorship. Just like some schools are better than others when it comes to preventing bullying, some online environments and family circumstances are better than others when it comes to preventing cyberbullying and other online problems.

Arguing that screen time leads to cyberbullying is like saying school time leads to face-to-face bullying.

So how can you help your child navigate the next few months of increased screen time?

Almost everyone will be spending more time online in the coming months, kids included. That doesn’t have to be a bad thing. Not all screen time is created equal, and as parents we need to balance the entertainment with the informational. Interactive educational activities can be a wonderful way for your child to continue learning, and I’m sure you’d prefer they spend most of their time in front of a screen growing in their academic and character-based abilities. But a reasonable amount of time doing something fun on their devices isn’t going to hurt them (and may help you get other work and household responsibilities completed).

After watching a bunch of frog videos the other day, my son spent the next four hours outside—looking for frogs. It’s a little too early for them to be out here in Wisconsin, but that didn’t stop him from exploring the far reaches of our yard. And he slept like a rock that night. As Mr. Miyagi said in The Karate Kid, “Balance is key.”

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to finish that last episode of Tiger King.

Thanks to Facebook Research for supporting the project that allowed the data discussed in this post to be collected.

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