Kid with tablet

Virtual learning has put kids in front of screens more than ever.

Managing screen time as an adult is difficult in the digital age, and managing screen time as a child can be nearly impossible. The mid-morning scroll through social media, the Netflix binge and, now, virtual schooling, all keep kids hooked to their screens. Since the pandemic started, kids have seen a 50% increase in their screen time, according to a report from Axios.

All that screen time comes with health risks. Kids who spend more time on social media and their phones are at an increased risk of mental health issues, including depression and suicide, than their less technology-dependent peers. Another study, published in the American Journal of Ophthalmology in 2020, found that increased technology use led to greater chances of nearsightedness in children. But as COVID-19 continues to change the way we connect and learn, cutting down on screen time isn't always feasible.

 

Kids have been stuck in limbo this school year as Columbia Public Schools has bounced between virtual, in-person and hybrid learning. A school board vote earlier this month will open the schools for regular five-day weeks starting on April 5, but the more than 3,700 students who are learning virtually for the entire year will be unaffected, according to the Columbia Missourian.

Rural families have also had an increase in screen time. In a survey by MU Extension, 39% of rural respondents say they spend a lot of time on screens during the pandemic. That more than doubles the 19% of those surveyed about their habits before the pandemic.

Dr. Laine Young-Walker with MU Health Care recommends parents find a balance between academic and recreational screen time for their children in an interview for KOMU's "Reopening Our Schools" Town Hall last August.

Michelle Mathews, director of the MU Child Development Laboratory, teaches a course titled "Technology and Young Children" and says that she thinks the pandemic has shifted views on technology from the more negative impacts to a lifeline for many people, especially young children.

The American Academy of Pediatrics changed its recommendations in 2020 from no recommended screen time for children younger than 18 months to allow for video-chatting for kids in that age range.

“They said that it’s okay for infants and toddlers to engage in that type of screen time because they weren’t able to connect with their grandparents and people that were important in their lives,” Mathews says.

Older children have been using screens to stay connected outside of virtual learning as well. Mathews has a child in eighth grade who has been virtual learning during the day and playing Minecraft online with friends at night.

“In the past that may have seemed excessive,” Mathews says. “I’ve relaxed on that. They’re playing together, they’re laughing, they’re processing things that are happening throughout their days. To me, that supersedes the all-day screen time.”

Mathews says the key to managing screen time is finding a balance and using technology purposefully as a tool. She says if balance cannot be found through tight moderation, like it was before the pandemic, taking breaks to get outside and connect with the world can bring a balance to daily technology use. Mathews also says parents should learn to be critics of technology and media. “Look for apps and games that spark creativity, activity, critical thinking or problem solving,” she says. Media that does these things keep kids engaged and not passively receiving information.

“We as parents have to also be good role models for technology,” Mathews says. “I try not to be on my phone all the time. I try to use my phone to look up information, play music and use it as a tool and not just mindless entertainment.”

Harvard Pilgrim Healthcare, a nonprofit health services company, recommends having at least one screen-free meal with kids a day, and closing phones and laptops two hours before bed. For more information, the American Academy of Pediatrics offers a media and children communication toolkit for families to help decide how much and what kinds of screen usage are right for them.

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