Enrichment Arts & Culture

Youth screen time increased by 52 percent during pandemic: study

“Practitioners working with children, adolescents, and families should focus on promoting healthy device habits among youths.”
Girl holding device with screen.

Story at a glance

  • New research found average screen time among youths aged 18 and under rose by 84 minutes per day during the COVID-19 pandemic compared with rates measured beforehand.

  • The findings mirror similar upticks in screen time seen among U.S. youths throughout the pandemic.

  • Experts worry the increases could worsen eye health and contribute to low physical activity rates.

Screen time rose by more than 50 percent among children and adolescents around the world during the COVID-19 pandemic compared with rates measured before the crisis.

That’s according to a review and meta-analysis published in JAMA Pediatrics that included data on more than 29,000 youths aged 18 and under. Data were collected from 46 studies that investigated changes in daily screen time among youths around the world. Of those studies, 26 percent were carried out in North America.

The results are similar to rises in screen time documented among American youth throughout the pandemic. In May 2020, 12-to 13-year-old children doubled their non-school related screen time, while a survey carried out in the fall of 2020 found more than one-third of U.S. children reported excessive screen time.

The 52 percent increase equates to a jump of around 84 minutes per day, researchers found, and corresponds to a daily mean of 246 minutes of screen time per day during the pandemic. 

Rises were highest among individuals between the ages 12 and 18, whose screen time increased by 110 minutes per day, and for personal computer and handheld device use. Researchers note adolescents in this age group are more likely to own and access digital devices compared with younger children.

Around 95 percent of U.S. teens report having access to a smartphone in 2022, and 46 percent say they use the internet “almost constantly.”

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“Adolescents were also more likely than younger children during the pandemic to seek new outlets for creative expression, learning new skills and building on existing skills in a remote context, much of which took place on digital devices,” they added. 

Based on the findings, “practitioners working with children, adolescents, and families should focus on promoting healthy device habits among youths, which can include moderating and monitoring daily use, choosing age-appropriate programs, and prioritizing device-free time with family and friends,” the authors wrote. 

U.S. experts have raised concerns about the potential negative effects of excessive screen time on children’s eye health.

An additional meta-analysis published in July found that globally there was a 32 percent decrease in children’s engagement in moderate to vigorous physical activity during the pandemic, while in the United States, parents reported their children’s physical activity decreased and sedentary behavior increased in the early days of the pandemic.

These changes were more pronounced among older children. Watching television, videos or movies along with playing computer or video games were among the most common sedentary behaviors reported. 

The sharp increase in screen time is attributable in part to school and other activities moving online. Many children also likely used technology to occupy their time during the pandemic. Prior to COVID-19, youths spent around 162 minutes per day looking at screens. 

Previous research has revealed an association between increased child screen time and poor sleep, physical activity, mental health, eye health and academic outcomes, researchers wrote, while the majority of parents are unaware of the health issues linked with excessive screen time among children.

However, one recent study suggested playing video games in particular may be linked with higher cognitive performance in children who play at least three hours a day. 

JAMA researchers also note the majority of apps designed for children use manipulative techniques to maintain their attention. 

Several states in the U.S. have introduced laws aiming to curb the addictive features of apps like Instagram and TikTok that traditionally have young user bases. Last week, advocates urged the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation to advance the Kids Online Safety Act, which if implemented, would let children and parents disable addictive features and opt out of algorithmic recommendations. 

Fifty-seven percent of youths included in the review were male, while the average child age was 9 years.

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