How a COVID year of screens has impacted kids: A guide for parents about kids’ media use

April Barton | Burlington Free Press

Many families’ rules around screen time went out the window after the COVID-19 pandemic forced kids on screens for remote learning and to connect with family and friends.

What has been the net result of all that time staring at lighted pixels?

There have been some negative outcomes such as an increase in family disagreements over media usage, but there have also been some positives including increased social emotional wellness connecting with loved ones and friends virtually, according to a new study released by the Digital Wellness Lab at Boston Children’s Hospital.

The center has studied how media usage over the past year has affected youth and has created the 2021 Family Digital Wellness Guide to give parents science-based media advice for their children according to age.

“The cacophony of opposing opinions on digital use and the impact of screens on children often leaves us confused, overwhelmed and wary,” said Boston Children’s Hospital’s Michael Rich, the so-called “Mediatrician.” “We need something better than opinions. The Digital Wellness Lab is a hub for unbiased, scientific research and tools at your fingertips that parents, and all users, need now.”

The impacts of a year on screens

A nationwide online survey of 1,569 parents conducted March 9-15, 2021, yielded some interesting results about children’s media usage. Here are some of the findings:

  • About half of parents reported having more disagreements about media usage than before the pandemic: 44% were about how long they were using it, 32% were about when they were using it, 20% were about what they were using (content).
  • More parents reported media usage has helped their child’s health and well-being than hurt it: Physical health — 37% helped, 22% hurt; mental health — 45% helped, 19% hurt; educational achievement — 52% helped, 20% hurt; family relationships — 50% helped, 18% hurt; friend relationships — 56% helped, 15% hurt.
  • Physical activity was less for 39% of children, more for 35%. Sleep increased for 38%, and decreased for 20% of respondents. Stress levels rose for 34% and was less for 27%. In the categories of sleep and stress, more respondents said there was no change and the figures were 43% and 39% respectively.
  • 62% of parents reported children were having a positive experience with remote learning.
  • Parents felt their child’s reading and math skills had improved with remote learning, however they thought social skills may be suffering. Reading — 52% helped, 14% hurt; math — 48% helped, 18% hurt; social skills — 39% helped, 32% hurt.

Much more is in the pulse survey data including ways in which children were using media.

A guide for parents

The 2021 Family Digital Wellness Guide is an easy to use manual for parents who want to guide their child’s screen use in a way that is most beneficial based on the scientific data. Parents can view it online or download the pdf version for free.

Once in, choose the age range that corresponds to your child to learn about media usage at that age, tips and advice, and topics pertaining to that age group.

For instance, if you choose “Tweens” there is an overview of where they are developmentally and how they are influenced by media as well as information about how they tend to use media. Then, there are tips and relevant science related to 10 topics: body image, cyberbullying, independence, learning, mental health/COVID-19, music, parental modelling, sleep, social emotional learning and violent media.

Next is the answer to the most common question the Mediatrician gets for children that age which is: is technology decreasing kids’ ability to communicate face-to-face? Last are ice breakers to help parents start up conversations about media with their tweens.

More information can be found at the Digital Wellness Lab website.

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