Stop staring! Managing screen time
It was necessary for everyone in the family to increase their daily screen time during the pandemic. Doing more activities online, such as education, work, and socializing, meant that there was less opportunity to get a break from the screen. Parents are aware of the impact all this additional screen time might have on their kids and are trying to put more structure in place. The concept of screen time itself is necessarily evolving, divided between activities that are necessary and productive and other activities that are purely recreational.
Screen time has gone up for everyone in the family during the pandemic, including for children, despite parents’ efforts to structure screen time. About six in 10 Canadians say their kid’s screen time has increased since the pandemic began. Ontarians are the most likely to say their kids’ screen time has increased, with 72 per cent saying so. New Brunswickers were the least likely to say it increased a lot, at 44 per cent.
Parents shouldn’t stress out about using more screen time to cope during the pandemic, says Matthew Johnson, director of education at MediaSmarts. After all, much of it has been beneficial.
“Aside from needing digital devices for school, we know that they have been a lifeline for kids to keep in touch with their friends and that games and video have been an important way of cheering themselves up, especially when other recreational activities have been limited,” he says. “Rather than counting hours and minutes of screen time, it’s best to keep an eye on total sedentary time and the times and places where kids are using screen devices. Keeping screens out of bedrooms and keeping them turned off during family time and at least an hour before bedtime will promote healthy tech use.”
In 2021, 58 per cent of parents say they enforce screen time rules for children under 18. For those parents, they are more likely this year to report using weekday limits, with 52 per cent saying they put them in place, compared to 39 per cent in 2020. It’s less common to have unwritten rules this year, with only 43 per cent saying they use this approach compared to 51 per cent last year. Other methods of controlling screen time include setting a schedule (30 per cent) and collecting devices (20 per cent).
When it comes to managing your kids’ screen time, their age is what should dictate the approach, according to Johnson. If your children are still under two years old, then screens should be limited as much as possible.
“That’s not because there’s necessarily anything bad about screens, but because screens don’t provide the things that babies and toddlers need to develop – interaction with other people and opportunities to explore the world around them,” he says. “There is an exception for video chats with people they already know, such as relatives, which seem to provide some benefit.”
When it comes to older kids, what matters more than how much time they spend on the screen is what they are doing on that screen, Johnson adds. Parents should encourage social activities that are educational and creative or activities that are active such as a dancing game or a Pokémon Go-motivated walk around the neighbourhood.
With all the requirements pulling our attention onto the screen, about half of Canadians say the longest they have managed to go without being online is less than one day. Just last year, only 40 per cent of Canadians reported the same. In 2021, almost one in five Canadians say the longest they’ve gone without being online is five hours or less, which makes you wonder if people are getting enough sleep.
Half (49%) say the longest they’ve gone without being online in the last 12 months is less than 1 day.
Many Canadians don’t even try to take a break from going online, with 36 per cent saying they never make an attempt to unplug, up from 29 per cent in 2020. For those that rarely or never unplug, the most common reasons keeping them wired in are that “it’s easier to stay connected” (37 per cent), to stay connected to family (34 per cent), to stay connected to friends (33 per cent), and to stay connected to work (23 per cent). Also, 15 per cent of Canadians say they are addicted to being online.
For those that can take a break sometimes or often, the most common reasons for unplugging include to relax (48 per cent), to avoid wasting time (42 per cent), to recharge (38 per cent), to focus on face-to-face relationships (30 per cent), and to improve sleep (30 per cent).
Children are spending a lot more time on screens for a variety of reasons, including playing games (50 per cent), for school (43 per cent), and to watch TV (35 per cent).
Adults are also spending more time with screens, with 63 per cent of Canadians estimating their own screen time has increased since the pandemic began. That includes 27 per cent of Canadians that feel it has increased a lot.
Canadians say they are spending more screen time for activities such as watching TV (38 per cent), socializing via messaging and chat apps (25 per cent), working (22 per cent), shopping (21 per cent), and socializing via videoconference (20 per cent). Residents of Quebec, P.E.I. and Newfoundland and Labrador are the most likely in Canada to say they spend their screen time socializing on chat and messenger apps.
As pandemic restrictions lift and more activities become available, Johnson encourages everyone to consider if they’ve created any bad habits with screens that should be broken.
“We should definitely take this as an opportunity to reflect on how we and our kids use screen devices. A lot of people have discovered new screen activities – from YouTube guitar lessons to virtual field trips – that have brought a lot of richness to our lives,” he says. “At the same time, we may have developed some bad habits that we need to address. As parents, we should start by taking a look at the messages that we’re sending with our own screen use. What we do sends a louder message than anything we say.”