Screen time for children shot up significantly during the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, with kids spending roughly 5.9 hours a day looking at screens, nearly three times the recommended amount, according to a recent study led by researchers at Western University.
Current guidelines from the Canadian Paediatric Society recommend no more than two hours a day of media screen time in children over five years old, according to the study.
The increase is being attributed in part to higher parental stress levels, parents working from home and balancing domestic duties, the switch to remote learning, and cancelled activities outside the home.
The study’s co-author, Western education professor and Canada Research Chair Emma Duerden, said the findings of the study were surprising.
“It ended up being quite statistically significant…. We did have parents reporting in the study that sometimes their children were watching screens for as many as 13 hours a day,” Duerden said Thursday in an interview with 980 CFPL’s Mike Stubbs.
For the study, to be printed in December’s Journal of Affective Disorders Reports, researchers surveyed dozens of Ontario parents between June 2 and Aug. 2 of 2020 via an online questionnaire. In all, 104 parents were enrolled and 73 completed the survey.
The parents were asked questions about changes to the screen time use of their children, aged six to 12, and their child’s activities prior to as well as during the pandemic, specifically March to July of 2020.
“This was a crisis time when parents and children went home, schools were closed, parents were required to work from home, juggle both work and school commitments,” Duerden said.
Parents were also asked to complete a Perceived Stress Scale measuring their current stress levels, and were asked questions focusing on their and their child’s experience with remote learning, and their parenting behaviours.
Researchers found that, on average, the time children spent watching content on screens and playing video games during leisure time rose from an average of 2.6 hours per day pre-pandemic to 5.9 hours per day during the pandemic.
At the same time, 30.7 per cent of parents reported being moderately stressed at the time of the survey, while 28 per cent reported being highly stressed. Only 21.3 per cent reported having low stress. The researchers note they did not assess the parents’ pre-pandemic stress levels.
The study concluded that higher stress levels in parents were associated with increased hours of screen use in children, with smaller screen time increases observed in the initial months of the pandemic when greater parental attention and involvement was reported.
“I guess the main concern is that our study and other studies around the world demonstrated that, during the pandemic, screen time went up and then physical activity decreased,” Duerden said.
“When we’re sitting watching a screen, we’re not doing other behaviours like doing sports or interacting with others, things that we know are really important for healthy brain development.
“We also know from other research that it’s associated with higher rates of loneliness, and even some research suggesting that a greater reliance on screens and smartphones in children is associated with even anxiety and depression in children.”
Duerden said researchers are conducting another study looking at the 2020-21 and 2021-22 school years to see if the screen trends stay the same, and how they may be connected to school-related stress and children’s overall cognitive health.
In addition, the issue of growing and prolonged screen time for children has also elicited concern from eye doctors about what effect it may be having on eyesight.
Earlier this month, in marking World Sight Day, the head of the Canadian Ophthalmological Society attributed an increase in diagnosed myopia cases to increased screen time.
“Due to the pandemic, some Canadians were hesitant to go for their annual/biannual checkups, and as a result, we’ve seen an increase in eye health issues and that prolonged screen time is a key factor in the increase of conditions such as myopia (nearsightedness),” Dr. Colin Mann said in a statement.
In August, a survey by the society found that one-third, 34 per cent, of respondents reported experiencing worsened eyesight, dry eye or other eye health changes during the pandemic.
Michael Nelson, president of the Canadian Association of Optometrists, told Global News in March that most eye issues related to screen use will clear up when screen use is limited, but not all.
He added that myopia management was a “huge, growing area in our field” and that the World Health Organization had identified it as a global issue.
“The (incidence) of myopia worldwide is increasing, definitely. Globally, we’ve identified that and that’s why there’s a lot of research going into this area,” he said.
One suggestion to slow down the progression of myopia is to spend more time outdoors.
–with files from Jacquelyn LeBel