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For many American children, it has been over 20 months of hour after hour after hour of learning, doing schoolwork, playing games, texting, using social media, and watching TV and movies in front of a screen. If you add it all up, it is easy to see how the average child's daily screen time has shot up during this pandemic period.
In November 2021, researchers discovered it had doubled since 2019 from four hours to nearly eight hours a day, even without remote learning and homework factored into the equation. The impact on kids' mental, physical, and emotional health has been much harder to calculate.
Long before COVID hit, medical professionals like Jose Morales Moreno, MD, a pediatrician with University of Utah Health, were well aware of the link between increased screen time and deteriorating mental health, greater stress, disrupted sleep time, less physical activity and more sedentary behavior, along with poorer school performance in children of all ages.
Morales said it's a problem he has been addressing with his patients and their parents, but resolving it is not getting any easier. "It's an ongoing battle and it definitely has been exacerbated by the pandemic. Also, it is tough because I find that some families are more successful than others at decreasing screen time," said Morales Moreno.
Setting reasonable boundaries on screen time, and being in the home to reinforce them, demands a lot of parents, according to Morales Moreno. And he understands why some caregivers are challenged by the overwhelming responsibility of simply supporting their families. "If you have two parents who are both working two jobs, one during the day and one at night, then they can't be home as often because when they are at home, they have to sleep to get ready to go to work," said Morales Moreno.
The same study that found screen time almost doubled during the pandemic also confirmed alarming trends seen by researchers before COVID. Black and Hispanic teens and those from low-income households are spending the most time of any group on screens.
The research team led by Jason Nagata, MD, a professor of pediatrics at University of California, San Francisco, suggests those worrisome numbers might reflect "a lack of money for other kinds of activity or lack of access to safe, outdoor spaces."
Morales Moreno admits it was easier to encourage his young patients and their parents to do those physical activities together or through recreational leagues before COVID. But one of his primary concerns with extended screen time continues to be too much sitting.
"Screen time tends to be a sedentary behavior and we know that if you are not actively moving, you are not getting enough physical activity and, that is linked to childhood obesity and diabetes. On top of that I worry the child might not have a great diet or overall nutrition," said Morales Moreno.
If finances are preventing parents from pulling their children away from screens, Morales Moreno recommends "Family craft time, doing puzzles together, playing outside, or going for a walk."
Finding safe and reasonable ways to limit screen time is a difficult dilemma for today's parents and caregivers. Stress levels are high, and families are under increasing pressure to strike a balance between work and home life that includes more control and supervision over kids' online activities. It is a struggle that could impact a generation of young people's physical, mental, and emotional health.
Morales Moreno shared his insights on the mental and emotional health components of this issue, suggesting that, "We do know that increased screen time has been associated with more aggression in children and difficulty controlling one's emotions. So, I can certainly see how screen time could affect the way that a child behaves in many different settings, including in school and at home, and perhaps lead to more outbursts and inappropriate behaviors."
In other words, getting a handle on these issues now while children are still growing and learning, could define their future success in school and the workplace.
One discouraging finding to come out of recent study indicates that the rising tide of screen use may not subside with the pandemic. Morales Moreno understands how researchers would come to those conclusions. "I think that is probably accurate because once you build up a habit, it can become hard to break that habit," he said. But he is hopeful the relationships and the lure of activities that once pulled kids out of alone time with their screens, will be rekindled.
"Pre-pandemic a child, a patient, might have spent some of their time out with friends and doing activities with others whether it was organized or not, just kind of socially. If those relationships have been neglected, the hope would be that they can be nurtured again," said Morales Moreno.
Most of Morales Moreno's pre-pandemic wisdom and warnings about screen use have not changed. He continues to encourage his patients and their parents to keep screens out of the child's bedroom to ensure quality sleep, establish screen-free time and device curfews in the home, discuss online safety, and create screen diversions. After all, there is no substitute for spending quality time with our kids as families and friends begin to meet face to face again for long-awaited reunions.