COVID-19: Rethinking screen-time

How to balance out scree-time with important activities?

Daniel Kardefelt Winther (Office of Research - Innocenti) in collaboration with Jasmina Byrne
09 February 2021

Today, about 3 billion people are in lockdown around the world — and almost 90% of the student population cut off from school. It’s no surprise that a lot of children and their parents are increasingly connecting to the outside world through screens they might have once regarded with restraint or even reproach.
With more than 130 countries restricting movement to contain the COVID-19 pandemic, it is time to recognize the internet as a critical tool for children’s access to learning, play, entertainment and social interaction. In short, they might have a lot to gain from spending time in the digital space.
But for parents who worried about the time their children spend on social media and online games before the pandemic, the figurative ‘jump’ into screens can also cause more concern or even distress. How can children and families make the most of the increased reliance on screens — which are helping to maintain a sense of normalcy during lockdown — while also finding the right balance with other important activities?

Research shows that social media and video games provide a temporary escape from real life and offer valuable social engagement. 

But what about the risk?
A recent body of high-quality research has demonstrated that for children the impact of screen-time on mental health and well-being is fairly small. Other factors, namely parental support, family relationships or adverse childhood experiences are more impactful than screen-time. This body of work includes large-scale surveys of more than 350,000 children, longitudinal research with children in UK, diary studies from UK, Ireland and the US. Little evidence still exists in low-and-middle-income settings, where access is more limited.

UNICEF’s report — Growing up in a connected world — states that while a small group of children will inevitably encounter adverse experiences when they use digital technology, this is not directly related to the time they spend online. Rather, when considering such experiences, more attention should be paid to what children do online, the content they encounter, and their life environment and support networks in general. Not too much, not too little, but just the right amount of screen time seems to be optimal for children.

Screen-time has also been blamed for physical inactivity — a leading risk factor for global mortality which also contributes to childhood obesity. Some argue that restricting the time children spend with screens is one way to increase physical activity, but this is not supported by research. For many stuck inside today, the opposite actually holds true: active video games or exercise videos might be their best chance for physical activity.

But back to the question about balance. How we can help every child achieve it, both during a pandemic and when life goes back to normal?

What can be done?
Here are some key things to take into account:

  • Staying in touch with friends is important: During extraordinary times with a high degree of uncertainty and irregularity, it is vital for children to play and communicate with friends. Video games and social media can offer meaningful experiences during a pandemic: connectedness in a time where social interaction is reduced; entertainment when options are limited; and a tool to help take the edge off of anxiety and fear.
     
  • Active engagement and parental oversight: Legitimate reservations around the content of some video games and a range of online risks that might befall children playing them can be mitigated by active parenting strategies. These include talking to children about their online experiences; making sure they do not play games intended for an older audience; and observing their general mood and happiness as they play. Playing video games together with children is a good way to ensure that they stay safe. It can also be a lot of fun!
     
  • Physical activity in front of screens: Keep in mind that during a pandemic many children will not get the amount of physical activity that they are used to. If learning, socializing and play is, for now, confined to the screen, we need new ways to help children remain active. With restricted outdoor movement, the WHO has recommended active video games and online exercise classes as a way to stay healthy at home. This is a good solution because it provides both physical activity and entertainment. This advice is useful both during the COVID-19 pandemic but also when life goes back to normal. WHO also offers ideas for stay-at-home physical activity that are not digitally driven, which is useful for families with limited connectivity.

As the COVID-19 pandemic shows, we are increasingly reliant on digital technology. It has become a lifeline for those of us confined to our homes.
Now is a good time to revisit assumptions linked to children’s use of these devices, which often stem from fear of the unknown. To counter these fears, parents might use the extra time they spend together with their children while in lockdown to learn more about each other’s worlds, both digital and physical.