Alarming Findings From a New Study on Kids' Screen Time During *and After* School Interruptions
Pandemic Policies Led to an Explosion in Kids' Screen Time. The Effects Are Worse Than Expected in a Variety of Ways
Beginning in the spring of 2020, some 60 million American kids began each day not by hopping on a bus or walking to school, but by parking themselves in front of an electronic device. And there they sat, hour after hour, day after day. Depending where they live, this arrangement may have continued for more than a year. Many parents who had imposed stringent limits on screen time for their kids before the pandemic capitulated to the new reality, and watched the old rules melt away. For families where both parents worked, and there was no childcare available for the little ones, it was all but inevitable that YouTube and whatever other entertainments the internet had on offer were going to funnel, relentlessly, into their kids’ brains.
A new study, published in the journal JAMA Network Open, quantifies this dismal truth that so many parents observed. Researchers from Kaiser Permanente, Johns Hopkins, Dartmouth, and Columbia, among other institutions, found that, during the period of December 2020 through April 2021, screen time for kids aged 4 to 12 increased by nearly fifty percent, from 4.4 to 6.6 hours per day, versus pre-pandemic levels.
The news may be worse, still: remote schooling was not part of the survey, and the authors said that they don’t know how or whether parents included any hours that their kids may have spent on zoom classes in their daily tallies.
The numbers for minority kids are even more grim. Children who are part of racial or ethnic minorities had more screen time than white kids. Black children had far and away the most screen time, with 5.4 more hours per day. Children with mothers who had the least amount of education also logged the most time in front of a screen. (Prior research also shows increased screen time correlated with lower family incomes.)
You might be thinking that the increase was only during the height of interrupted schooling, when many kids were in fully remote or hybrid school, or had an otherwise restricted in-person school experience. Unfortunately, you would be wrong. The authors looked at a second period, from May 2021 through August 2021, and the numbers just barely budged downward. In other words, the screen habits that began with the lockdowns persisted even after a semblance of normal schooling and other activities had resumed for most kids.
A specific development the authors looked at relates to social media use. “11.2% of children had a social media account in the latter pandemic period compared with 4.4% before the pandemic,” the authors wrote. This was of particular concern, they said, because all children in the study were younger than 13, which is the minimum age required for most social media accounts.
While “screen time” of course can mean many different things — from reading Tolstoy to watching porn — the aggregate evidence, in particular for kids, is that, in general, it’s correlated with poorer educational and mental health outcomes. And the connection between screen use, sedentariness, and poor physical health, of course, is widely established. (Remember the “sitting is the new smoking” meme from a few years back?)
So, not only are the study’s results bad news for kids overall — for many reasons, not the least of which is physical health — but the interruption to normal schooling, and its association with increased screen time, harmed kids from minority and lower socioeconomic families the most.
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