Screen Time Usage: Pre-Pandemic, Pandemic, & the Present

Even prior to the pandemic, children’s access to and the duration of screen use has been on the rise. From 2015 to 2019, entertainment screen use went up by 3% for tweens and 11% for teens. Children’s engagement with certain types of digital devices varies by age, but television appears highly popular among kids of all ages. Between 1999 and 2009, the prevalence of televisions in children’s bedrooms increased from 65% to 71%. Now, with the use of streaming services, children can more easily access entertainment media content on their own devices, as more than two-thirds of kids own a smartphone by age 12. 

When schools and recreational activities closed during the COVID-19 pandemic, screens became one of the few options that kids had to stay connected, learn, and have fun. This led to a significant increase in overall screen use among children around the world. According to Common Sense, a non-profit research institution focusing on youth media use, tweens’ and teens’ entertainment media use grew faster between 2019 and 2021 than it did in the four years prior. 

In another study published by JAMA Pediatrics, researchers found that the global average amount of time children spent staring at screens during the COVID-19 pandemic rose by 52% – jumping from 162 minutes to 246 minutes per day. The findings indicated that screen time increases were highest for tweens and teenagers. 

Even after many public health precautions were lifted, screen time usage still remained elevated. In the US, youth screen time went up by nearly 2 hours per day during the early stages of the pandemic but remained at 1.11 hours higher per day after in-person school and activities resumed. 

The reality is screens aren’t going away, and restricting exposure may often have the opposite effect. When in-person activities resumed, parents struggled to reduce their kids’ screen usage back to “normal” pre-pandemic levels. Parents articulated how restricting screen use often leads to arguments and children circumventing parental restrictions. Even the traditionally strict American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) relaxed its guidelines to accommodate the constraints of lockdown measures. AAP writes, “Unfortunately, there isn’t enough evidence demonstrating a benefit from specific screen time limitation guidelines,” so instead of enforcing a time limit on screens, they urge parents to consider “the quality of interactions with digital media and not just the quantity, or amount of time.” 

So, what does this mean in practice for parents? And should they set limits around screen use? If so, what limits should they set, and how should they go about doing it? In the upcoming series of articles, we will explore various factors related to children’s screen use to provide caregivers with a better understanding of how to support their children effectively in this digital age.