Amanda Fludd can see the effects of the pandemic-era increase in kids’ use of electronic devices in the children she counsels at her Lynbrook social work practice, and at home with her two children.
Fludd said her daughter and son got used to being on devices at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, and that continued, "where they looked for any opportunity to be on [devices] once school resumed and some of their activities resumed."
What to know
Children’s time in front of screens soared during the early part of the COVID-19 pandemic, with one study showing a doubling of non-school-related device use.
Screen time remains higher than pre-pandemic for many children, experts and parents say. Some device use is fine, but excessive use can be damaging, medical and psychological experts say.
Too much screen time has been linked to impaired cognitive development, trouble concentrating, decreased academic performance, anxiety and other problems.
Fludd’s children are typical. Nonschool-related use of electronic devices spiked early in the pandemic, studies show, and, for many kids, it remains high.
Medical and psychological experts said the trend is concerning because studies show that too much screen time can lead to impaired cognitive development, poorer academic performance, anxiety, problems focusing, sleep loss and less physical activity.
Device use "may have decreased a little [since spring 2020], but it is still well above pre-pandemic levels," said Dr. Jason Nagata, an assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of California, San Francisco, and lead author of a study published in November in JAMA Pediatrics that found nonschool screen time had doubled by May 2020.
Nagata’s peer-reviewed study of more than 5,400 kids, most ages 12 and 13, found an average nonschool screen time of 7.7 hours a day in May 2020, compared with 3.8 hours for the same kids about three years before. Higher screen use was linked to more stress and poorer mental health, the study found.
Nagata and fellow researchers analyzed data from the nationwide Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development study, which is following the same group of children from 2016 to 2026.
Black and Latino children, and kids from less wealthy, noncollege-educated households, tended to spend more time in front of screens. That may in part be due to less money to pay for other activities, and less access to outdoor recreation, Nagata said.
In findings that have yet to be published, Nagata examined screen time for the same children in March 2021, when most kids had returned to in-person classroom instruction. He found social media use had slightly increased from May 2020, while video game use slightly decreased.
Parents cut off devices at 9 p.m.
Fludd said she and her husband, Keith, have tried to limit their children’s electronics use, but they both work and "you’re just so tired yourself from the day. You’re not as attentive."
"Like today, I came home [from work] and someone was on it and she knows she wasn’t supposed to be," Fludd said by phone, her daughter Safiya, 9, sitting nearby within earshot.
The Fludds noticed their children were spending less time reading and were falling behind on chores, so they recently cut off their access to devices at 9 nightly.
"I just don’t want them to be consumed all day," said Fludd, of Rosedale, Queens.
Safiya and her brother, Malcolm, 11, said they enjoy playing video games that allow for conversation among participants.
"It’s easy to keep a conversation going when you’re playing a game, because you have stuff to talk about," Malcolm said.
Ben Abbass, 14, of Northport, said that when he and his friends get together for games online, "A lot of times we wouldn’t even play. We would just sit there and talk to each other."
Ben’s mom, Sara Abbass, 38, and dad, Steven, 40, gave Ben access to social media in 2020, earlier than planned, so he could keep in touch with friends whom he didn't see in person. Ben continues using social media regularly.
"I think it’s a habit everyone got into, just being able to snap people," Ben said, referring to Snapchat.
The Abbasses impose restrictions for Ben and their other three children, ages 5, 8 and 12, including generally limiting video games, TV and movies to Friday nights and weekends.
"We are not back to pre-pandemic entirely, just in the sense there is a little bit more [device use] than I would personally care for," Sara Abbass said.
The couple makes sure there are plenty of nonscreen activities, she said. All four children play sports and have reading time each night, and three of them play instruments.
"As parents, obviously we don’t know how we’re supposed to be navigating this pandemic," Abbass said. "We’re all trying to find a balance for them and not be on top of them 24/7 about not being in front of the screen."
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends only very limited screen use for children younger than 2, such as video-chatting with family, and only with an adult present. Kids 2 to 5 should be in front of screens an hour or less a day, and only watch educational and other high-quality programming, preferably with a parent present, the academy advises.
Restrictions should be placed on device use for older children, such as no screens in kids' bedrooms and limiting entertainment screen time to less than an hour or two a day.
Fludd said for some kids she sees in her social work practice, especially those who already have issues with depression and social anxiety, devices are a way to avoid confronting problems.
"They’re not forced to work through being social with other people and having conversations and really using their skills and tools to navigate how they feel," she said.
Expert: There were positives at first
Anthony Anzalone, a clinical psychologist at Stony Brook Medicine, said in the early months of the pandemic, electronic devices had a positive aspect, helping kids socialize when they were physically apart.
Some children "are satiated with screens and are eager to connect in the real world with their peers," and their device use moderated, he said. But for most kids Anzalone and his colleagues see, use remains higher than pre-pandemic, when there already was concern about excessive screen use.
The problems that too much screen time can cause — such as anxiety, depression and blunted brain development — can follow children into adulthood, Anzalone said.
"It could lead to increased impairment in executive functioning, which would encompass planning, time management and organization," he said.
Kids who have a hard time concentrating — because they’re used to the "instant gratification" of devices — may not be able to focus on jobs as adults, when "there are portions of our jobs that aren't always thrilling that we have to attend to."
Electronic device use stimulates the pleasure center in the brain, but that "chemical boost" often doesn't lead to deep happiness or satisfaction, Anzalone said.
"It takes away from our ability to be mindful and present in the moment," he said. "The world can be a beautiful place. It’s a heck of a lot more beautiful than looking at a meme on Facebook."
Screen time recommendations
- Impose limits on your child’s device use.
- Don’t allow kids to have devices in their bedrooms when they go to bed.
- Designate device-free times together, such as during dinner.
- Teach kids about both the risks and benefits of technology.
- Consider software to restrict kids’ access to certain websites and monitor your child’s browser history.
- Encourage your child to participate in sports, music, hobbies or other activities that don’t involve screens.
- Set a good example through your own screen usage.
SOURCES: American Psychological Association, American Academy of Pediatrics, American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry