Virtual Learning and the Health Risks of Excessive Screen Time for Kids
by Kaitlin Edwards
The Covid-19 pandemic has had a very disruptive effect on the daily routines of children. As the virus spread across the country last spring, over 50 million children in the U.S. were affected by school closures. These kids not only dealt with secondhand stress from the strain put on their families, they also lost all of the academic and social benefits of in-person school. And while remote learning may be a temporary fix during closures, new concerns have risen now that classrooms are virtual environments and exposing children to an unprecedented amount of screen time. Policymakers and health organizations need to put in guardrails so that after the pandemic parents and educators understand the impact and appropriate amount of screen time for children of all ages.
Screen time has increased in part because of virtual school, but also because parents are leaning more on devices to occupy their children as they juggle work and parenting. The result is a dramatic increase in screen time for American children. Elementary-aged children, who range between 5 and 11 years old, doubled their hours of screen time per day to over five hours from May 2020 compared to May 2019 levels, according to device-usage tracking company Qustodio. These changes could be especially prevalent among low-income families who lack childcare options, as they may rely more heavily on technology as a way to entertain young kids. Common Sense Media found that children from lower-income families spend 40 percent more time on electronics compared to children from middle-income families.
Before the pandemic, a Pew Research Center study found that 80 percent of parents say that their children (ages of 5 to 11) use or interact with a tablet device. That same study concluded only 60 percent of parents with children under the age of 11 reported having talked about the appropriate amount of screen time for children with a medical professional.
The effects of widespread increased technology usage and immersion through Zoom and virtual schooling among children are not yet clear. Research does show that the use of electronics by children increases health risks including obesity, high blood pressure, diabetes, stroke, anxiety, and depression. Excessive electronic use, defined as more than two hours, is also correlated with delayed language and reading skills, and even thinning of the cortex — which serves higher-order thinking functions like attention, memory, and consciousness. Due to these known risks, The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and World Health Organization (WHO) recommend screen time guidelines by age — children under the age of two should have little to no screen time per day, children ages three to five years can have up to one hour, and children between the ages of six and ten years can have up to 1.5 hours of screen time. To best model this behavior and for the sake of their own health, it is also recommended for adults to limit their screen time to two hours per day outside of work.
While much of the development and change in brains occurs in early childhood, brains are still plastic in older children and implications from excessive screen time stretch beyond elementary school. To date, there are no federal or state policies in place to protect children past two years of age. Even for the age range of newborns to two-year-olds, only 29 states and Washington, D.C. have regulations that prohibit or limit screen time in early childhood education settings. After the pandemic, it will be difficult to wean children from the screen time to which they have become accustomed. Keith Humphreys, an addiction expert and a former senior adviser to President Barack Obama on drug policy, said, “There will be a period of epic withdrawal.”
The Biden administration should revive the Obama-era National Institutes of Health campaign, We Can!, that promotes programs and curricula that educate the public on what the health risks of excessive screen time are for children. Policymakers should also push for legislation at the state level to limit screen time to the age-appropriate amount in childcare and educational-settings. Every state should implement regulations to ensure screen time does not exceed 1.5 hours per day in educational settings for children under the age of ten. For example, legislation was recently introduced in Minnesota that states, “a child in a publicly funded preschool or kindergarten program may not use an individual-use screen, such as a tablet, smartphone, or other digital media, without engagement from a teacher or other students.” Ultimately though, curbing unhealthy screen time will need buy-in from families, and campaigns, such as Screen Free Week can raise awareness on this important issue.
It is unclear which changes to everyday life will persist once things return to normal, but even pre-Covid, technology use was increasing among children. Now is the ideal time to ensure safeguards are in place to protect vulnerable children against the risks of excessive screen time. In the meantime, it is important for policymakers and community leaders to bring awareness of screen time guidelines from the AAP to encourage parents to monitor and limit screen time. The greater public lacks awareness of this significant issue, and making this information accessible to parents and educators is crucial in protecting the development of a generation already feeling the consequences of a global health crisis.