Some kindergartners are staring at screens for over 6 hours a day during COVID

COLUMBUS, Ohio — There’s little doubt remote learning and child care issues are pushing more parents to rely on screens to keep their children preoccupied during COVID-19. For lower income families however, a new study finds screen time is reaching a concerning level among younger children. Researchers from The Ohio State University say kindergartners from low-income families are spending over six hours a day looking at smartphones, tablets, and other digital screens during the pandemic.

The study, conducted during the early months of the crisis in 2020, notes this is nearly double the screen time average for youngsters prior to COVID. Researchers say parents and caregivers in low-income households have faced more challenges managing the time their children spend watching television and using smartphones with daycare centers shut down.

“We found a high level of media use compared to what many experts think is appropriate for this age group,” says Rebecca Dore, lead author and senior research associate at OSU’s Crane Center for Early Childhood Research and Policy, in a university release.

“Some of that time spent using media was positive: watching educational videos and connecting with friends and family. But the amount of time they spent is something we should be aware of.”

Screen time is actually worse during weekdays?

Researchers surveyed 151 low-income Ohio caregivers with kindergartners between May 1 and June 30, 2020. The group responded to 12 questions examining their child’s media use during the early days of the pandemic; including both weekday and weekend usage. Study authors note media use includes any activity involving video, such as watching television, movies, shorter clips on a digital device, or using apps and games on electronic gadgets.

During this two-month period, results reveal young children spent 6.6 hours a day using screens. However, unlike previous studies, researchers discovered kindergartners spent more time using media on weekdays (6.8 hours) than on the weekends (5.8 hours).

“That suggests parents might have been using media as a substitute for the time their children would have been spending in some type of child care that was closed because of the pandemic,” Dore explains.

“Increased screen time may be particularly concerning for children from low-income households who had higher levels even before the pandemic: over 3 and a half hours per day compared with less than 2 hours for children from high-income homes.”

Remote schooling is NOT to blame for more screen usage?

While taking classes online would seem like a likely cause, the study finds remote learning is not driving the increase in screen time by young kids. Despite this, 84 percent of kindergartners in the study only had direct contact with their teachers once a week. Over half the survey (53%) had no direct contact with educators at all.

Still, over six in 10 caregivers said their children’s media usage was in some way related to learning. Researchers suspect kids were likely watching more educational TV shows or using educational apps not related to their classwork.

So what is driving up the use of digital screens during COVID? Forty-seven percent of low-income families said their kids are turning to screens more often for entertainment during the pandemic. Another 45 percent said more screen time helped to occupy their child’s time and 42 added their kids used these devices to stay in touch with friends and family. One in three said their child was using screens more often for family bonding purposes.

“Importantly, we saw increases in media use in a lot of areas often considered positive, such as learning and fostering friendships, suggesting that caregivers may have been using media to supplement children’s educational and social experiences at a time when in-person options were not safe,” professor of educational studies Laura Justice says.

“But these families don’t have some of the resources that more advantaged families have to help with children while the parents work or do other things. For low-income families, occupying a child’s time may also be very important and necessary at times.”

Are high-income families experiencing the same issues?

The report also reveals kids living in homes with more children spend more time on digital devices. Researchers say this may reflect the pressure parents face managing larger families. Girls in kindergarten spent more time looking at screens while connecting with family and friends than boys did.

The study did not determine if families with higher incomes are also seeing increases in media use among kids. However, given the widespread struggles during the pandemic, study authors note these children are likely acting in a similar way.

“Other reports would suggest children from all backgrounds had higher media use during this time,” Dore concludes. “But use may be even higher in lower-income families because they are less likely to have flexibility to manage children’s activities during work hours or be able to afford other child care options.”

Previous studies have discovered increased screen time is literally altering the way children view the world around them. Too much media use by children also has links to developing eating disorders and drops in academic performance.

The study appears in the Journal of Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics.

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About the Author

Chris Melore

Chris Melore has been a writer, researcher, editor, and producer in the New York-area since 2006. He won a local Emmy award for his work in sports television in 2011.

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