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Screen Time in the Time of COVID-19

Published on Psychology Today

Screen time is something that parents stress out about all the time. How much screen time is too much? Can too much screen time hurt my kids? Is it making them dumber? Will they end up with attention problems?

The COVID-19 pandemic has in many ways forced additional screen time into our children’s lives, either because parents have to work and children have to occupy themselves for hours and hours alone and indoors, or most prominently, because of remote learning requirements. Even teachers are wary of too much screen time for kids who are learning from home, and districts have shortened the online school day to minimize screen time, or schedule numerous activity breaks where kids are asked to get away from the screen for a while to move around. This new reality has a lot of parents wondering—what is the impact of this additional screen time on my kids?

Unfortunately, science is slow, and we don’t quite yet know about the present and future long-term impact of the pandemic on our children. However, we can look at results of science past for some clues.

The first thing we do know from lots of previous research that might give parents some peace of mind is that kids can learn from screens. Research on children’s learning from educational programming like Sesame Street and Between the Lions has shown that kids who watch these shows are less likely to fall behind in school (Kearney & Levine, 2015) have better word recognition, standardized reading scores, and phonemic awareness (letter-sound relations) compared to control groups of kids who didn’t watch these shows (Linebarger, Kosanic, Greenwood, & Doku, 2004). Further, other studies have shown that children can even learn social and emotional skills like empathy and emotion recognition by watching shows like Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood, which is designed to teach children prosocial skills (Rasmussen et al., 2016). In fact, Daniel Tiger has even been effective in teaching important prosocial skills to children with Autism (Dotson et al., 2017).

One caveat is that these learning gains switch direction if children watch programming that isn’t child-friendly or educational in nature. In fact, while children who watch child-audience educational programming show better performance in a variety of reading and number skills, children who watch general audience programs (or shows that are made for adults) show poorer performance on all of these skills. So, the content of what kids are watching really matters. Also, there’s no evidence that infants, or kids under the age of 3, can learn much from screens, even when the program is explicitly targeted towards teaching infants something specific, like new words (DeLoache et al., 2010; Fender, Richert, Robb, & Wartella, 2010; Richert, Robb., Fender, & Wartella, 2010).

Importantly, all of this work was done on children’s learning from TV shows where they just watched passively. In other words, the kids in these studies were just watching shows like Sesame Street or Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood while sitting on their couches. The research on learning from more interactive media or learning from media with the help of an adult gives us cause to be even more optimistic. In fact, although research suggests that babies can’t learn much from media, when they’re using media to talk to a live person, like on FaceTime, they might understand or learn more than if just passively watching a regular television show. For example, when the content is interactive, or children are encouraged to respond to the characters on the screen in shows like Blues Clues or Dora the Explorer, there are learning benefits even for infants as young as 2 ½ (Linebarger & Walker, 2005). Likewise, when children are engaging with a real live person through a screen, like on Facetime or Zoom, learning is also much improved, even for infants. In fact, a recent study suggests that infants as young as 12 to 25 months of age can learn new words if taught by a live person on video chat, but not if the same person is presented teaching the same words on a pre-recorded video (Myers et al., 2017).

This suggests that children can and do learn from media, and they learn especially well from media that’s interactive, like in remote learning environments where a teacher is talking to students in real time. This is good news for screen time in terms of remote learning—your child certainly can learn in these environments. In fact, a brand-new report on children’s recent national test scores suggests that children in grades 3 through 8 are doing about the same in reading and are only slightly behind in math compared to children tested last fall, before the start of the pandemic (Kuhfeld, Tarasawa, Johnson, Ruzek, & Lewis, 2020).

All in all, most of what we know from previous research shows that by kindergarten when remote learning tends to start, children should be able to learn from screen media. On top of that, the amount of time children spend on media doesn’t seem to be the factor that causes problems. Instead, it’s the quality of the media or the specific content that matters most. Watching aggressive or violent media, for example, has been associated with aggressive behavior in kids, and again, engaging with adult-directed content instead of child-directed educational content has negative outcomes as well. Furthermore, the more time adults engage with social media like Facebook, the less happy they report being (Shakya & Christakis, 2017). So although not all media are created equal, it doesn’t seem like parents should worry too much about educational media or any kind of media engagement with a live teacher. In those cases, most outcomes have been positive, which is good news.

But the news isn’t all good. Most research suggests that while children can learn from screen media, they likely learn better from a live adult. This is pretty intuitive, and most of us have probably guessed that it’s better for kids to be in the classroom with a live teacher than to be sitting at home trying to learn from a screen. Indeed, children are likely more engaged in the classroom, where teachers have more control over what’s happening and can get a better idea of where students are in terms of their learning goals. I’m not suggesting that we should ever opt for permanent online learning; instead, I’m proposing that the sheer amount of time kids are spending on screens while they’re engaged in school (where there is no option for in person learning, or where in person learning is a health risk) might not be the most pressing issue we should be concerned about.

What is perhaps more concerning are the inequalities that virtual learning is likely causing, or making worse. There is already an achievement gap between children from lower and higher income backgrounds in terms of school performance, so children who don’t have access to technology like laptops and iPads during a period where online learning is necessary could fall even farther behind. Further, schools that have the resources to go back to learning in person safely are likely going to do it before schools that have fewer resources, further widening the achievement gap. As a professor at a public university, I’ve seen firsthand how some students with an abundance of resources have taken the transition to virtual learning with stride, while others, who have fewer resources and far less experience using screen-based technologies, are struggling. In fact, the brand-new report I mentioned above comparing children’s national test scores from last fall to this fall doesn’t include scores from students in marginalized communities. That means the full impact of the pandemic on children who are already at-risk for learning difficulties hasn’t yet been fully realized.

The other thing we might want to be more concerned about than screen-time itself during the pandemic is what screen time is taking the place of—namely face-to-face social interactions. This could potentially have a negative impact of children’s mental-health and socialization. Studies on the relation between social isolation and mental health in children and adolescents already suggest that feelings of isolation and loneliness are associated with increased risk for depression (e.g., Loades et al., 2020). Further, recently published international survey data are suggesting that children and adolescents are experiencing higher than usual levels of depression and anxiety since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic (e.g., Duan et al., 2020; Orgilés et al., 2020; Yeasmin et al., 2020; Zhou et al., 2020).

All in all, this research suggests that spending extra time on a screen during virtual learning may not mean our children aren’t learning at all this year. They will likely experience some delays, like the small delay we are seeing with math performance on standardized tests, but the amount of time they are spending on a screen while they are interacting with their teachers shouldn’t be what we are most concerned about in terms of negative repercussions of the pandemic. Making sure our children are feeling engaged with others, either at home with immediately family, or by finding a safe way for them to play outside, could help mitigate the most serious repercussions of the social isolation that the pandemic has caused. Again, science is slow, so it might be a while before we know exactly how the pandemic will affect our kids long-term. But in the meantime, making sure that their emotional needs are being met as much as possible might help them bounce back more quickly once they can be away from the screen and in a live classroom again.

Photo by Pxhere/Public Domain


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