Kids' screen-time 'doubled during pandemic'. Here's how to bring it down again.

·6-min read
New research has revealed children's screen time doubled during the pandemic and hasn't returned to normal. (Getty Images)
New research has revealed children's screen time doubled during the pandemic and hasn't returned to normal. (Getty Images)

During the COVID 19 pandemic screens became more important than ever, with pupils forced to swap the classroom for Zoom and many working parents having to resort to using screens to keep their children occupied during successive lockdowns. 

It's little wonder that new research has revealed children's screen time doubled during the pandemic and hasn't gone down since. 

Youngsters are now spending almost eight hours a day looking at smartphones, tablets and the TV, compared to less than four hours pre-pandemic. 

And that figure discounts time spent on computers doing school work, scientists say. 

The surge in screen time includes playing video games, chatting on social media, texting, surfing the Internet and watching or streaming movies and television shows.

Watch: Tech lovers admit taking a break from their devices has helped them sleep better

Read more: Nature makes children happier: How to encourage kids to spend time outside

Despite screens being something of a necessity during the pandemic, experts fear that this increase in screen time could have had a number of health repercussions.

"Excessive screen use in adolescents has been associated with physical and mental health risks," explained co-author Dr Jason Nagata, from California University.

Experts are concerned about the impact of an increased amount of screen time. (Getty Images)
Experts are concerned about the impact of an increased amount of screen time. (Getty Images)

Poorer mental health and greater perceived stress were linked to higher total screen use, while more social support and coping behaviours were associated with lower total screen use.

The study, published in JAMA Pediatrics, was based on surveys of 5,412 participants aged 10 to 14 who self-reported their screen time both before and during the pandemic.

"We found the mean total daily screen use was 7.7 hours," Dr Nagata continued. "This is higher than pre-pandemic estimates of 3.8 hours."

But despite the gradual reversal of pandemic measures and restrictions, studies have suggested it may remain high.

Too much screen time can raise your child's risk of developing obesity, attention problems, anxiety, depression and sleep issues.

What's more, new data looking at over 120,000 Chinese schoolchildren has suggested a threefold increase in shortsightedness among six-to-eight-year-olds in 2020 – which experts assume has been triggered by their being kept at home engaged in purely online learning between January and May of that year.

World Health Organisation (WHO) guidelines recommend that children aged three to four have less than one hour's screen time a day. 

Despite this, a survey conducted by OFCOM in 2019 revealed that over half of three to four year-olds spent over eight hours a week on Youtube alone.

Read more: How to tell if your child's screen time is a problem

How to reign your child's screen time in now that life is returning to normal. (Getty Images)
How to reign your child's screen time in now that life is returning to normal. (Getty Images)

Read more: How to get more involved in your child's digital life

So as we look to the future what can worried parents do to reign in their children's screen time?

How to reduce your child's screen time

Build a more balanced play routine

Try limiting daily screen time, or thinking together about rules around screen time to build a more balanced routine. "For example you might want to decide how long your child can have screen time for and until what time, and introduce opportunities for other kinds of activities such as reading, playing outside or doing outdoor activities, or socialising with others in person," Gemma Campbell, online counsellor at mental wellbeing community, Kooth suggests. "This can be useful to ensure children are not solely reliant on screens."

Dr Amanda Gummer, child psychologist and founder of the Good Play Guide outlines the importance of finding balance in children's activities. "A balanced play diet is as important to children’s social and emotional wellbeing as a good nutritional diet is to their physical health," she explains.

"Children need plenty of social, active, imaginative, free play and this is not often facilitated through screen-based activities.”

Introduce screen time boundaries

According to Dr Alison McClymont screen time should not be a constant. "We should be limiting screen time to set periods of the day, or as a reward," she advises. "Research shows that screen time particularly under the age of five can have serious negative effects on a developing brain. The more we use 'other things' to fill children's needs, the more often we miss an opportunity to connect and teach."

Find an alternative activity

As opposed to offering screen time, Dr McClymont suggests offering an alternative activity to do together, or asking children to suggest one. "Start a conversation about a topic you know they like - it can even be the choice of TV programme/game! Ask for help with a chore and say that screen time can happen afterwards," she says. 

"Anything that draws them in to connection with another and away from a screen is a positive re-enforcement about the idea of the necessity for human interaction."

Be consistent

And stick to your decreased screen time parameters, advises Lucy Shrimpton, parenting expert and founder of The Sleep Nanny. "This means not saying 'no' to screen time and then giving in later because they simply learn that you will cave. It is about being really clear with your rules and letting your child know that you mean it."

Remember to set an example with your own screen time. (Getty Images)
Remember to set an example with your own screen time. (Getty Images)

Lead by example 

Experts believe parents need to set an example of healthy tech use so children understand the importance of screen-free time.

“Parents are their children’s version of normal so whatever they do, the children think is normal and even desirable behaviour, so they are likely to copy it,” says digital habits researcher and King's College London academic Dr. Rachael Kent. “Yet many adults increasingly lack the ability to switch off when so many life domains are managed via our digital devices.”

Dr Gummer suggests enforcing family breaks from screens. “Parents are their children’s version of normal so whatever they do, the children think is normal and even desirable behaviour, so they are likely to copy it," she adds. 

Try tech-free tools

If you are struggling to enforce screen-free time, there are some inventions to help including Tech-Break, which has been specially designed to reduce the time families collectively spend on their devices. Families decide a length of time to go ‘screen-free’ for (between one and 24 hours), place all their devices inside Tech-Break, set the timer and lock the door. Their devices will be released when the time runs out.

Dr. Gummer says a physical solution can help in cases where children resist giving up their devices or parents struggle to switch off.

“When children do something physical, like putting a device away in a particular place, it can help process and reinforce the routine,” she says. “Children thrive on routines as it gives them confidence and embeds healthy habits.”

In addition to physical solutions, parents can also use apps and device settings to set screen time limits for themselves and their children, including reminders to take regular breaks.

Remember not all screen time is bad

In fact some digital platforms, TV programmes and games with interactive capacity can facilitate learning, socialisation and most of all fun. "So, like with most things, moderation is key," Campbell adds.

Watch: Screen time linked to risk of short-sightedness in young people

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