Teen screen time more than doubled during COVID-19 pandemic, study says

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The average total daily screen use among adolescents more than doubled during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a group of international researchers. 

In a study published Monday in the journal JAMA Pediatrics, the group found that screen use rose to 7.7 hours per day from pre-pandemic estimates of 3.8 hours per day.

Using data from the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development (ABCD) study and more than 5,400 adolescents predominantly aged 12 to 13 years, the authors determined screen use from adolescents’ self-reported hours during a typical day from 2016 to May 2020.

The majority of the group was female, more than 60% were White and ages ranged from 10 to 14 years old. 

Multiple-player gaming, single-player gaming, texting, social media, video chatting, browsing the internet and watching or streaming movies, videos, or television shows were the most typical activities. 

A mother and daughter sit at home with a laptop 
(Credit: iStock)

The total typical daily screen use – excluding school work – was calculated and the researchers used multiple linear regression analyses to estimate associations between mental health and resiliency factors and total screen use. They also adjusted for potential confounders including sex, race and ethnicity, annual household income, parent educational level and study site. 

Using Stata statistics and data software, they found that poorer mental health and greater perceived stress were associated with higher total screen use. Alternatively, more social support and coping behaviors were associated with lower total screen use.

They also noted that younger age and slightly different screen time categories could account for differences. 

Other limitations of the study included the use of self-reported data, and the researchers noted that the computed total of hours could be an overestimate, as adolescents often multitask on screens.

“Despite the gradual reversal of quarantine restrictions, studies have suggested that screen use may remain persistently elevated. Screen time disparities across racial, ethnic, and income groups in adolescents have been reported previously and may be due to structural and systemic racism–driven factors (eg, built environment, access to financial resources, and digital media education)—all of which have been amplified in the COVID-19 pandemic,” the authors wrote. 

Any future research, they added, should examine screen use trends as pandemic restrictions are lifted and explore methods to prevent sociodemographic disparities.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), citing the Kaiser Family Foundation, kids aged 8-18 spend an average of 7.5 hours in front of a screen for entertainment purposes.

The American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry recommends that parents devise a “screen-time plan” for their children.

“Positive and healthy screen use is possible with proper guidance and consistency,” the academy notes.

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