The pandemic led to a rapid rise in screen time among kids while the vast majority of them engaged in full-time remote or hybrid learning.
But as COVID-19 restrictions lifted and students returned to in-person instruction, the time they spent in front of screens didn’t come back down as expected, according to newly released research supported by the National Institutes of Health and published in the journal Pediatrics. Those elevated levels of screen time persisted for more than one year after the pandemic forced mass school building closures nationwide.
That’s troubling to health experts for a number of reasons: Too much screen time is bad for children both physically and mentally. It can lead to weight-gaining habits and eventually obesity and hurt students’ focus and executive skills—all of which can get in the way of learning.
While the NIH study says that it’s still too early to see how increased screen time may affect kids’ long-term obesity and mental health outcomes, many educators say that they believe screens have already had a negative impact on their students. In a 2022 survey by the EdWeek Research Center, 88 percent of teachers, principals, and district leaders said that as students’ screen time increased, so did learning challenges. Eighty percent of educators said that student behavior got worse due to increased screen time.
For the study, sponsored by NIH, researchers from Kaiser Permanente Northern California observed 228 children ages 4-12 both before and during the pandemic.
Before the pandemic, average screen time for those kids was 4.4 hours a day. From the start of the pandemic to April 2021, children spent 1.75 hours more per day on screens than they did pre-pandemic. From May through August 2021, students were spending, on average, an additional 1.11 hours per day on screens compared to before the pandemic.
The researchers did not include screen use for remote schooling in their analysis.
The findings align with research from Common Sense Media, which surveyed an older group of kids, ages 8-18 and found similar increases in screen time that persisted well into 2021.
Students accrue screen time both in school and at home. And with neither educators nor parents having control over the other’s domain, it’s easy for kids’ screen use to creep up.
How educators can help
Although not all screen time is equal—for instance, doing homework on a laptop isn’t the same as watching TikTok videos on a phone—there are steps educators can take to address the problem, such as:
- Require students to use pencil and paper to complete some assignments or give students printed materials to read—or even podcasts or audio books to listen to.
- Teach students healthy tech habits, such as learning to recognize if excessive device time is affecting their sleep, activity levels, and relationships.
- Encourage healthy tech habits by explicitly connecting the social-emotional skills that students are learning in school to their digital lives. For example, perspective-taking and empathy are important skills for kids to have as they’re interacting with one another on social media.
While there’s plenty of evidence to show that lots of screen time can be bad for kids, there is no consensus on exactly how much screen time is too much.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommended that young children—ages 2 to 5—spend no more than an hour a day looking at screens, but then relaxed those guidelines during the pandemic.