Children’s screen time doubled during pandemic — and hasn’t changed much since

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SAN FRANCISCO, Calif. — Children’s screen time has doubled during the pandemic — and it hasn’t gone down since, according to new research. Researchers from the University of California-San Francisco say youngsters are spending almost eight hours a day looking at smartphones, tablets, and televisions, compared to less than four hours before COVID.

Concerningly, this figure does not include the time spent on computers for school work. Researchers focused completely on recreational activities like playing video games, chatting on social media, texting, surfing the internet, and watching or streaming movies and TV shows. Along with contributing to a more sedentary lifestyle, study authors say this shift is also affecting the mental health of many adolescents.

“As screen time increased, so did adolescents’ worry and stress, while their coping abilities declined,” says corresponding author Dr. Jason Nagata in a university release. “Though social media and video chat can foster social connection and support, we found that most of the adolescents’ screen use during the pandemic didn’t serve this purpose.”

Lockdowns, online learning, and social distancing has led to a reliance on digital media for nearly all facets of adolescents’ lives over the last two years.

The study, published in the journal JAMA Pediatrics, is the first to show an increase using data from across the United States. The findings come from surveys of 5,412 participants between the ages of 10 and 14 who self-reported their screen time both before and during the pandemic.

Is more screen time bad for your diet too?

Results show adolescents are, on average, looking at screens for recreation for 7.7 hours a day. This is higher than pre-pandemic estimates of 3.8 hours from the same group of children. Most of this activity centers around watching or streaming videos, movies, or television shows. Playing multi or single-player video games also contributed to the increase.

Study authors say poorer mental health and greater perceived stress show a link to higher total screen usage. More social support and coping behaviors showed a connection with lower total screen use. Despite the gradual reversal of quarantine restrictions, studies suggest screen time continues to remain high. This can be harmful, not just for mental health, but physical health as well.

“Screen time lends itself to more sedentary time and less physical activity, snacking while distracted, eating in the absence of hunger, and greater exposure to food advertising,” Dr. Nagata explains.

Is this issue affecting minorities more?

“We generally found higher screen time in Black and Latino/a adolescents and in those from lower-income households,” Nagata concludes. “This may be due to structural and systemic factors, such as lack of financial resources to do other kinds of activities or lack of access to safe outdoor spaces.”

The rise in children’s screen time during the pandemic has triggered calls for greater interactivity and outdoor exercise. Previous studies have also linked smartphone and computer use to rising rates of eye health issues and nearsightedness among school children.

South West News Service writer Mark Waghorn contributed to this report.