IE 11 Not Supported

For optimal browsing, we recommend Chrome, Firefox or Safari browsers.

Screen Time Revisited: The Good, the Bad and the Unknown

No surprise, a new report tells us that children’s screen time increased during the pandemic. The jury is out on how this will impact them, but parents have a role to play in guiding better screen-time habits.

screen time, boys on computers
Prior to the pandemic, there were already concerns among many parents and educators about the amount of time kids spent each day looking at screens. Now after kids have been through two years of virtual schooling and increased isolation from their friends, a new report from the nonprofit Common Sense Media confirms what we already knew: Their screen time has increased. And not just a little.

According to Common Sense Media’s survey of tweens (8- to 12-year-olds) and teens (13- to 18-year-olds), tweens now spend five and a half hours a day on screen media, while teens spend about eight and a half hours. This represents a 17 percent increase for 2019-2021 for both groups, surpassing in just two years the increase measured over the previous four.

The biggest growth areas were in the time kids spend watching online videos, using social media and browsing the web. And regardless of age, gender, ethnicity or socioeconomic level, YouTube is the one site kids report they wouldn’t want to live without.

None of this will come as a surprise to parents who have gone through the pandemic trying to do their own jobs, while simultaneously monitoring their kids’ virtual schoolwork and recreational screen time. And even some of the most resolute parents have relinquished their authority, such as the author of the New York Times piece, “I Was a Screen-Time Expert. Then the Coronavirus Happened.

Unfortunately, we can’t turn back the clock and get a do-over on these tough past two years in our kids’ lives. But screens were already becoming ubiquitous well before the pandemic hit. COVID-19 just helped accelerate the pace. And now with all of the potential ills this has wrought, there’s some good to be had from it if we’re able to moderate how our kids engage with their screens.

So, how do we moderate children’s screen time? In an Education Week article on this topic, one of the experts interviewed said, “Instead of asking the question, ‘How do we get kids off screens?’ Let’s turn the question around and ask ‘How do we make next year so much more interesting, engaging, interactive for our kids?’”

For parents and educators, this means we have some work to do — both in ensuring we provide kids with plenty of compelling off-screen activities, and also in not falling back into habits we developed during the dark days of COVID-19 when screens took on an outsized role in our educational, recreational and social lives. But families have gone through some extraordinary times together, and parents need to forgive themselves for letting kids zone out in front of all manner of screens while stuck inside for days on end. We were in survival mode.

To help families develop better screen-time habits, the American Academy of Pediatrics has put together an interactive website for parents to use in creating their family’s media plan. Based on kids’ ages, it can help families decide how to create screen-free zones, screen-free times and device curfews, and how to choose and diversify media use, among other topics. If parents and kids consider these questions together, they can hopefully come up with a reasonable pact that lessens the histrionics that might otherwise occur when parents enforce screen rules.    

According to health experts, one area of particular concern is how screens have disrupted kids’ sleep patterns. And teachers are likewise troubled by kids falling asleep in class due to lack of sleep. So as families develop their media plans, special attention should be paid to ensuring screens are put away at night before lights-out. If necessary to lessen temptations, families should designate a location outside of bedrooms where devices are kept and charged overnight.

But without putting on rose-colored glasses and ignoring the downsides of kids’ increased screen use, there are some positives to recognize as we emerge from the pandemic.

  • Kids have developed some remarkable tech skills. Untethered from classroom constraints, many kids learned on their own how to create and share videos and music, while others became prolific writers and illustrators using digital tools. Left to their own devices (pun intended) and with greater freedoms, kids have stretched beyond what their parents and teachers thought they were capable of doing.

  • Kids have become adept at online communications and collaborations. It’s clear that virtual workplaces will continue past the pandemic. Though this has drawbacks, the market has spoken, and many jobs as we knew them have changed forever. By virtue of their time spent in virtual schooling, kids have developed a range of skills that could work to their advantage when they enter the job market. Being able to “read a room” online, and effectively engage with others in a virtual setting, are some of the soft skills that will prove invaluable for them in the future. And if they’ve developed better time management skills during remote learning, that too will help as they move into higher education and careers.

In addition to putting out their screen time report, Common Sense Media followed it with an article, “4 Conversations to Have with Older Kids and Teens About Their Screen Time Habits.” It focuses on “how” kids are using their screens, not “how long,” and in doing so gives parents some strategies on how to talk with their kids about their device usage.

There will be much to watch over the coming years on how kids are faring after pandemic-created disruptions in their lives. And among those observations, how kids are engaging with screens will remain a topic of particular interest. The past two years have been extraordinary, and one can expect, as we’re already seeing, that the outcomes for our kids will be equally so.
Kipp Bentley is a senior fellow with the Center for Digital Education. He has been a teacher, a librarian, and a district-level educational technology director. He currently writes and consults from Santa Fe, New Mexico.