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Kids and the Pandemic: Digital Device Use Continues to Rise

Kidsay, a market research firm specializing in brand engagement for kids, tweens and teens, has a new report entitled Devices and Digital Engagement: The Impact of COVID-19 (So Far) on Device Use of Kids, Tweens and Teens that you can access for free if you sign up. Some takeaways include that smartphone use (and ownership) is on the rise, especially in the 5-to-7-year-old demographic and that 74% of tweens and teens say that they are using their favorite devices more often during COVID that they were pre-COVID. Predictions for the future in the report include: eSports will continue to grow its youth base, animation will become even more prominent in kid-centered content (since it does not require filming on location the way live action does), and TikTok and Instagram will continue to rise since they deliver the connection and content kids seek. Kidsay also says that in the near term, kids will continue to have an unprecedented amount of free time, causing increased parental concern for the amount of time they spend on their devices.

“Our Kids are Walking Around with Slot Machines in their Pockets”

Former Democratic presidential candidate and entrepreneur Andrew Yang wants to see technology and media companies accept more responsibility for their impact on children, even if we don’t yet have research showing exactly what that impact is. Yang, in particular, calls for the government to drastically fund more research and step in, if needed, to incentivize tech companies to educate children, rather than entertain them and  collect ad dollars. (The children’s digital advertising market is expected to be worth $1.7 billion by 2021, according to a report from PwC.)

“Right now, the interests of parents are directly at odds with the interests of the technology companies,” writes Yang in “Our Kids are Walking Around with Slot Machines in their Pockets.” “They’re monetizing our attention and profiting off of our time. As they say, the addictive nature of smartphones is a feature, not a bug. We parents are outgunned and at a total loss.”

Screen Time and the Pandemic – The Psychological Effects

While some research is showing that children and younger people are less likely to have their health impacted by the coronavirus, experts expect they will experience indirect health care-related effects such as missed detection of delayed health development milestones, widespread omissions of routine childhood vaccinations and delays in seeking care for illnesses not related to the virus, researchers reported in the Canadian Medical Association Journal.  In addition to these indirect health risks, the findings also showed that social and mental health could see an impact from pandemic-related factors as well, including reductions in support for children with supplemental health care needs; lost social interaction leading to increased screen time; school cancellations that may worsen food insecurity; and forced isolation and increased screen addiction.

Your Kids and Digital Addiction

Despite assurances from experts that it is normal and ok that your kids are spending more time on digital devices in these unprecedented times, there is still a risk of digital addiction. If you want to review some strategies for weaning them away, check out this recent article in the New York Times entitled Is Your Child a Digital Addict? Here’s What You Can Do. The author discusses ways to help them step away from the screen without a battle.

How to Avoid Screen Time Burnout

How can you avoid screen time burnout when it seems like your whole life revolves around devices? Read or listen to an interview on the National Public Radio with Catherine Price,  a journalist and author of How To Break Up With Your Phone: The 30-Day Plan To Take Back Your Life about how to fight screen burnout. Since the pandemic, she's been offering new resources for finding a healthier balance with screens. In particular, she stresses figuring out how to take breaks from your digital devices.

Screen Time Unconnected to Young People’s Social Skills

Given all the time kids have been spending online during the COVID-19 crisis, there is some good news. Despite the amount of time spent on phones and computers, young people's social skills are not declining, according to the American Journal of Sociology. The study found similarities in how children who started school in 1998 and 2010 formed and maintained friendships, regulated their tempers and managed self-control.

Perhaps You Have Time to Create Your F-Pattern

Staying in with perhaps with more free time, many people are sharing tips for organizing your home and your life, but something different you may not have thought of is your organizing digital device. Consider rearranging the apps on your phone to create a F-pattern. Experts say that creating an F-pattern can help you be more productive with your phone and keep you away from the apps that may suck up your time, and give you more access to those that can make you more productive. It actually comes down to the way our brains scan print and pictorial pages.

Ways to Stay Connected During Social Distancing

While we are all required to stay physically apart during the COVID-19 pandemic, our physical and mental health and the success of our organizations will rely on seeking out emotional and relational connections during this time, write Michael Lee Stallard and Katharine P. Stallard. They offer 12 steps to avoid loneliness while social distancing, such as engaging in creative group activities, using online resources to learn something new, and seeking to serve others – things that apply to both adults and children.

The Benefits of Unplugging

The first Friday of March every year is the National Day of Unplugging (this year from sundown March 6 to sundown March 7). It is a chance to carve out time to relax, reflect, be active, be outdoors and connect with loved ones by “unplugging” from your digital devices. You may even find the desire to unplug and recharge more often. The scientifically proven merits of unplugging can be enjoyed any time. Choose a specific period of the day to intentionally power-down – you could try the first hour of the day, or the last… or even lunch, dinner, or the hours just before your kids go to bed. The specific time of the day is not important. What is important is the discipline of learning when and how to power-down. Choose something that works for your family and lifestyle and stick to it.

Some benefits found from unplugging:

  • Students that participated in a research study say that unplugging for 24 hours upped their productivity, helped them stay focused, and made them unexpectedly aware of aspects of their life to which they had become oblivious (like face to face interactions). Participants in other similar studies talk about how they felt they had an improved quality of life – more time with friends, more outdoor and exercise time, and even cooking more often and enjoying healthier food.
  • Unplugging can help you sleep better. Being woken up by notifications and alerts on news, random memes, and funny tweets is likely not doing much for your sleep patterns. You also should give those work emails a rest, because without recharging it is more likely you will make snap judgments or worse. Some of the most recent research also shows that for adolescents, sleep quality was negatively influenced by mobile phone use in general and social media use in particular.  Other research suggests that the blue light from the screens in our computers and phones also makes it difficult for our bodies to fall asleep, implying that we should disconnect before bed, rather than falling asleep while staring at our laptops and phones.
  • Multiple studies have shown that unplugging from technology might benefit your in-person communication and interpersonal relationships because it encourages you to communicate outside of the screen- and text-based medium. While technology makes communication super fast and convenient, it also removes body language, tone, and other things that help us understand one another and form bonds. Adolescents, in particular, need practice in reading and interpreting body language - something social media can’t help with, and in fact, often hinders. Unplugging can also mitigate FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) syndrome that so many adolescents suffer from.

Ideas for Getting Your Children Off Technology… and Screen Time Limits

What does a balanced tech life for your children look like? A recent article in Martha Stewart Living discusses the framework of Dr. Mike Brooks, author of Tech Generation: Raising Balanced Kids in a Hyper-Connected World, who points out that thinking about how technology could become a problem - before it does - is the way to keep communication open with your children. He emphasizes the importance of being a good role model in your own use of technology, and setting screen limits for every family member. In his way of thinking, there is no one size fits all standard for limiting screen use. 

While parents should know what the recommendations for screen use are from organizations like the American Academy of Pediatrics and Common Sense Media, Brooks points out that parents need to trust their parenting skills and teach children how to self regulate, pointing out that "Autonomy is a developmental need for children—they want greater independence. And if we're micromanaging all these aspects of their lives, screen time included, they're going to resent it." He argues that heightened anxiety over screen time amongst parents can actually be damaging to the child-parent relationship, and more harmful than screens themselves. 

If you’re looking for some immediate ways to limit screen time for kids, this recent short video from Good Morning America interviews teens and highlights the problem of addiction, while offering some quick tips on limiting screen time. Practical suggestions include no devices at meal times or in bedrooms or bathrooms. They recommend setting up a central charging station so kids have no excuse to have their phones in their rooms at bedtime. Experts also suggest becoming familiar with and using timers and parental control apps. For the long term, think about investing in a router that can help you regulate the time each family member can use the Internet as well as nurturing your kid’s interests in sports, art, music and other activities outside of digital devices.