Screentime for Children: A Study of Its Effect

With so many of their activities having moved online, it’s no surprise that children’ have increased their internet use during the pandemic. But mental health researchers and clinicians know that it’s important to understand more precisely how it changed and what the impact has been. That’s because while most young people will cope with these changes fairly well, a significant subset may develop internet use habits that negatively impact their quality of life. Researchers have a name for this: problematic internet use, or PIU.

The Child Mind Institute is conducting a study, which is being funded in part by Morgan Stanley and which kicked off last year, to determine what actually happened to kids’ internet use during the pandemic and whether it has led to increased PIU.

The study enrolled 1,000 families from the Child Mind Institute’s Healthy Brain Network, a community-based research program focused on finding biological markers of mental health disorders. Half of these families had children who showed symptoms of PIU in spring 2020; the other half did not. All participants filled out a survey to determine their child’s score on the Internet Addiction Test (IAT), which is used to quantify PIU and includes questions about such things as: How often does your child choose to spend time online rather than doing hobbies they once enjoyed? And: How often does your child play video games longer than they mean to?

Researchers also asked parents about how much time their children were spending on three specific types of digital media: social media, online gaming and streaming video. And they asked about parental use of the same media.

Overall, internet usage went up (and stayed up) among both kids and adults during the study period Between the time when researchers made a baseline assessment in late 2019 and the survey in May of 2020, the majority of kids went from spending less than an hour a day gaming to spend one to three hours or more. Similarly, before the pandemic less than 20% of kids used streaming video for four hours a day or more. By May of 2020 that number had doubled, with 40% spending four or more hours a day watching video online. The study also found a clear but less significant increase in social media use by both kids and adults during the pandemic.

In the third data collection, in February of 2021, researchers found these shifts in usage patterns remained—indicating that behaviors developed early in the pandemic persisted even after the relaxation of lockdowns later in 2020. In February of 2021, as many as 50% of adults were watching digital media for four or more hours a day, along with 40% of children. “Across the board there has been a rise in the consumption of digital media,” says principal investigator Michael P. Milham, MD, PhD, Vice President of Research at the Child Mind Institute. This is true across study populations, “whether we’re looking at kids or adults, or kids with or without mental health challenges.”

But does an increase in time spent online lead to an increase in PIU? Of the three online behaviors analyzed, kids who spent more time gaming were shown to have the biggest change in PIU—a 25% average increase in IAT score. And the difference in PIU severity between the most extreme gamers and those who don’t game at all almost doubled. Increases in social media use were also linked to increased PIU, but not nearly as much as gaming.

IAT scores increased the most in kids whose internet use was less problematic before the pandemic. And they increased most in younger kids (5–9 and 10–13) compared to teenagers. Nevertheless, teens still had the highest overall levels. Almost 27% of study participants aged 16 to 18 scored in the moderate to severe PIU range on the IAT, compared with 21% of 10- to 12-year-olds and less than 10% of 7- to 9-year-olds.

What about all that streaming video consumption? So far, the study results do not show a strong association between PIU and increased time watching streaming video. This may be because parents reporting on their kids’ use biased the data by downplaying impairment related to digital media use, perhaps because they themselves were also watching a lot of streaming video. In other words, it’s harder to see that your child’s behavior is problematic if their behavior matches your own. “I worry that people recognize their kids’ problematic gaming more than their problematic consumption of streaming video,” says Dr. Milham. “Because if you speak to a lot of parents, they’re watching with the kids.”

Based on the data, Dr. Milham’s advice for parents trying to decrease the impact of pandemic-era internet use is to get back to one hour or less of gaming daily and one to three hours or less for streaming video and TV. And remember—those rules go for parents and kids.

A proven way to initiate behavior change at home is to complete a household survey of internet use. Parents should ask themselves the following questions

  • How much time do you and your children spend online each day? Include not just “bad” use (games, social media, streaming video) but also “good” use (on-line learning).
  • Why are you letting your child use online media? To keep them quiet? To let them connect with friends? For educational purposes? How is this helping you versus not helping you?

Once you have more perspective on your family’s internet habits, you can work with your kids to set realistic boundaries that limit problematic use. Read more about helping children navigate screen time in a healthy way in this article from the Child Mind Institute Family Resource Center: Screen Time During the Coronavirus Pandemic.

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