education

Concerns grow for children’s health as screen times soar during Covid crisis


The rise in children’s screen time during the pandemic has triggered calls for greater interactivity and outdoor exercise to bolster learning and guard against an epidemic of shortsightedness.

Time spent online has increased dramatically in the past year. Millions of pupils have been forced to switch to remote learning, while social media use has skyrocketed, according to Qustodio, which tracks usage of tens of thousands of devices by children aged four to 15 in the UK, US and Spain.

Based on anonymous online habits data provided by 60,000 families, website and app visits in the UK were up by more than 100% this month compared with January 2020, spurred by YouTube, TikTok and BBC News. The average daily time spent on apps rose by 15%.

One area of concern is eyesight. Data from more than 120,000 Chinese schoolchildren published in Jama Opthalmology last week suggested a threefold increase in the prevalence of shortsightedness among six- to eight-year-olds in 2020 – most likely caused by them being confined to their home with schoolwork delivered online between January and May.

Among this age group, eyesight deteriorated by -0.3 diopters on average, equivalent to a 0.25 increase in prescription strength. “It means that more children aged 6 to 8 – maybe twice as many as last year – are in need of glasses to achieve their best visual acuity,” said Dr Jiaxing Wang at Emory University in Atlanta, who led the research.

“It is definitely clinically significant, especially as there’s evidence that a small decrease of diopter may lead to a significant change in [the ability to distinguish shapes and the details of objects], especially for young kids.”

It is uncertain whether the rise was caused by more time spent on screens or less time outdoors, but previous studies have suggested daylight exposure is key: sending children outdoors for an extra 40 minutes on school days resulted in a 10% reduction in the prevalence of myopia after three years, one study found. It is also possible that spending long periods looking at nearby objects, including screens and books, affects eye growth, Wang said.

Concern about excessive screen use extends beyond eyesight. The Millpond Sleep Clinic in London has reported a doubling in demand, according to its founder, Mandy Gurney.

“We are seeing a huge rise in people coming to us about sleep problems among children. They are hearing and seeing things about Covid-19 and worry about how that will impact on their families and friends,” said Gurney. “It’s not just screens that are an issue but … content. With a lot of older children, one thing parents say is they cannot get them to sleep as they have busy brains at bedtime.”

Vicki Dawson, the chief executive and founder of the Sleep Charity, said:We have seen a significant increase in children experiencing sleep problems since the pandemic. There would appear to be a number of factors around this, with increased screen time being one. In addition to this, there are reduced exercise opportunities, increased anxiety and lack of routine.”

Parents also worry about the impact of excessive screen time on children’s mental and emotional development. Experts stressed that not all screen time is equal. “The real issue is what’s being done on the screen,” said Paul Howard-Jones, a professor of neuroscience and education at the University of Bristol.

He is concerned about disparities in the materials schools send to pupils. Most of all, he says, children need to be engaged, and spending hours passively sitting in front a screen does not work. “They risk falling behind with their learning, because very little will stick, and it will also displace more interesting and interactive experiences,” he said.

“In excess, that displacement can be damaging in terms of reducing exercise. Interaction with peers when learning also helps develop social skills, and these interactions help maintain social networks that we know are important for reducing stress and protecting children’s mental health. Children are no different to adults in some respects – we all need a chat in the office.”

For these reasons, schools should make online learning as interactive as possible, breaking it into smaller chunks including discussions with peers and teachers. Tim Smith, a professor of cognitive psychology at Birkbeck, University of London, said: “There has to be an opportunity and encouragement for the child to reason about the material, cognitively act on it, think about it, problem solve, and then try to relate that to their own real situation.”

Andy Przybylski, an experimental psychologist and director of research at the Oxford Internet Institute, said there was not enough evidence to suggest spending a lot of time on devices had adverse effects.

While the US recommends no more than two hours of screen time a day for children aged two and older, the UK government has not advocated set time limits.

Przybylski said: “Lots of commentators are sceptical of screens and blame them for social isolation, but if you talk to young people they see these things as lifelines more than ever. For kids, instead of playgroups being in school they are now on Minecraft.”

Dr Max Davie, a consultant at the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, said he hoped the pandemic meant we would stop talking about counting screen time and rather “start talking about the quality of interaction and whether a child is getting enough exercise, sleep and positive interactions [online]”.

He added: “We have not seen the [childhood obesity] statistics yet but people are more sedentary because they are going out less.”

Prof Rachel Barr, a developmental psychologist at Georgetown University in Washington DC, who is studying how young children learn from screens, said she thought it was important for content to be varied. Games such as Minecraft, which enable children to interact or be creative, are likely to be beneficial – provided they are doing other activities as well, she added.

But parents do not need to rule out passive TV watching entirely. “Kids can learn a lot from videos, and their learning … is not passive – especially if a teacher, a peer or a parent talks to them about the content afterwards,” Barr said.

Bernadka Dubicka, of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, said: “The pandemic has highlighted the huge potential benefits of technology in terms of being able to keep connected but on the other hand spending all our time looking at screens is not healthy and does not substitute face-to-face interaction.”



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