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Experts say getting children to play outside is one way to reduce their screen time. MM Photography/Getty Images
  • Researchers say children’s recreational screen time in the United States doubled during the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Experts say the excessive screen time can have a number of effects, including weight gain, depression, and a reduction in social skills.
  • They say parents can reduce their children’s screen time by signing them up for sports or music classes, having them play outdoors, and setting a timer to make sure screen time ends as scheduled.

A new study reports that children’s time in front of electronic screens doubled during the COVID-19 pandemic to 7.7 hours per day in the United States, a number that excluded school-related work.

Researchers took data from 5,412 adolescents aged 10 to 14, the vast majority of whom were 12-13 years old. The data came from a May 2020 COVID-19 survey known as the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development (ABCD) study.

The same group was surveyed before the pandemic, when average screen time was 3.8 hours a day, although researchers acknowledged age difference could have played a factor here.

Nevertheless, the numbers show a significant increase in screen time, especially since “excessive screen time in adolescents has been associated with physical and mental health risks,” the study authors pointed out.

The usage was measured when the children were using electronic devices for “multiple-player gaming, single-player gaming, texting, social media, video chatting, browsing the internet, and watching or streaming moves, videos, or television shows.”

The study was led by Dr. Jason M. Nagata, a pediatric researcher at the University of San Francisco.

“Different screen use modalities may have differential positive or negative consequences for adolescents’ well-being during the COVID-19 pandemic,” the study’s authors wrote. “Adolescents experiencing stress and poor mental health may use screens to manage negative feelings or withdraw from stressors. Although some screen modalities may be used to promote social connection, higher coping behaviors and social support in this sample were associated with lower screen usage.”

The authors pointed out that, since the data was self-reported, there may be inherent limitations and that, since adolescents often multi-task while using electronic devices, “the computed total may be an overestimate.”

“Future studies should examine screen use trends as pandemic restrictions are lifted and also explore mechanisms to prevent sociodemographic disparities,” the researchers said.

Holly Schiff, PsyD, a licensed clinical psychologist with Jewish Family Services of Greenwich, Connecticut, told Healthline she’s already seeing the effects of increased screen time during the pandemic in her young clients.

“I have a number of child patients who have social skills difficulties and some socioemotional deficits due to them spending so much time on screens,” she said. “Many are also experiencing social anxiety as we get back to normal, as they fear real-life social interaction since they don’t feel well equipped to engage.”

“I would like to believe that it will recede naturally as we get back to normal,” Dr. Schiff said. “However, I am already seeing resistance from most, as parents are trying to pull back on screen time and enforce limits. During the pandemic, children really did not have (many) other social outlets and were not able to engage in much outside of the house.

“For a lot of these individuals, it became quite addicting,” she said. “And even with us starting to get back to normal, it is hard for these kids to cut back and decrease their screen time as they are now hooked on it and don’t really want to do it less.”

Anthony Anzalone, PsyD, a clinical psychologist at Stony Brook Medicine, told Healthline that suicide rates have risen for children ages 10 to 14 as social media use has surged, along with an increase in rates of diagnosed depression.

“We know that lower brain development (occurs) in pre-school kids who had increased screen time,” Dr. Anzalone said. “I’ve also encountered a lot of patients who feel compelled they have to know what’s going on, for fear of missing out. This worries me because it often detracts from people being able to attend to activities, work, or sustain attention on tasks.”

“There exists this paradox of boredom in that we never have to be bored, but at the same time, we have a lower threshold for dealing with boredom,” he added.

Anzalone also told Healthline social media exacerbates anxiety and impacts how children sleep, something he considers to be “one of the biggest cornerstones to mental health.”

“Sleep is generally considered one of the biggest cornerstones to mental health,” he noted.

Dr. Vanessa Neal, a pediatrician for SesameCare.com, told Healthline there are also physical health effects associated with too much screen time, like tired eyes, headaches, and weight gain associated with less physical activity.

Parents do have options to replace screens, especially as we come out of the pandemic.

Neal suggested signing children up for music classes or sports, which she said allow for more interaction with peers.

“When in the home, setting a timer can help regulate how long the screen is on, and a reward system can help encourage replacing screen time with household chores and needs,” she added.

“Most importantly, parents and families must have grace with themselves during this transition,” Neal said. “It will take time to reverse unwanted habits created by the pandemic, but parents simply reshaping their vision of their family’s day-to-day experiences will go a long way,” Neal said.