How Children Use Technology During Quarantine
While the prevalence of technology affords opportunities for education and social connection, its increased usage presents unique challenges to children’s physical and mental health and development — challenges that COVID-19 has exacerbated. Learning more about the effects of technology on children can enable parents, educators, and health care professionals to develop strategies to counteract its potentially negative impact.
Pandemic-induced business and school closures have caused many families to adjust to a new reality. Parents have converted bedrooms and living rooms into home offices, while children have transitioned to online learning and an increasingly digital social life. Meanwhile, many parents have eased restrictions on devices so their children can stay entertained, engaged, and connected. The availability of technology during the pandemic has been a double-edged sword.
Positive Impacts of Technology
The upside of devices is that they can provide an opportunity for children to continue their education and maintain relationships with friends and family.
- Remote learning. Computers, tablets, and smartphones have allowed students to remain connected to the classroom, albeit virtually. Many students have appreciated the less structured nature of remote learning and ability to work at their own pace and on their own terms. Distance learning has also been a blessing for students with social anxiety.
- Staying connected. In the age of social distancing, devices and other forms of technology have been a social lifeline for many, especially children. Young people have relied on screens to stay safely connected with grandparents and other family members and chat with friends while playing video games online. Studies have shown that using social media and messaging platforms to stay in touch with loved ones improves mental and emotional health, particularly in times of crisis.
Negative Impacts of Technology
The downside of devices is the reality that children may use them too much and that screen time may supplant family time:
- Too much screen time. Screens already occupied a significant chunk of young people’s lives before the pandemic — and even more so during it. Qustodio reports that children spent an average of 97 minutes a day on YouTube in the early days of the pandemic, twice as much as in 2019. Too much screen time poses several potential negative consequences, including vision impairment, sleeplessness, anxiety, and even addiction to the device itself.
- Family avoidance. In some cases, the more time children spent with their screens, the less time they spent with their family. While useful to remain connected, devices can be a poor substitute for in-person interactions that help children — particularly very young children — develop valuable social skills. In response, many parents have sought to impose restrictions on their children’s tech use.
Physical Health Effects of Technology on Children During the Pandemic
Numerous studies overwhelmingly indicate that, in general, children today spend significantly more time inside in front of screens than they do outside playing. Plenty of evidence shows that issues such as obesity, sleeplessness, and vision problems are among some of the negative physical health effects of technology on children.
Lack of Physical Activity and Exercise
While children across all age groups spend several hours a day in front of screens, some estimates suggest that they may spend as few as four minutes engaged in physical activity outdoors. COVID-19 has exacerbated this issue, leading to school closures and the temporary suspension or cancellation of many sports clubs and leagues, limiting children’s opportunities for both social connection and exercise. Additionally, about 25% of children don’t live in neighborhoods with sidewalks or walking paths, potentially limiting their physical activity, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.
Research has shown that children who spend two or more hours a week playing sports or engaging in other organized physical activity are also less likely to experience mental health issues.
Obesity and Poor Overall Health
In addition to the connection between technology and lack of exercise, researchers have found strong correlations between too much screen time, such as from television watching and computer use, and obesity in children. Some evidence suggests that children often eat less healthy food, and more of it, when they spend an excessive amount of time in front of screens.
Screens present numerous vision problems. Eyes may get tired and strained from extended screen time, especially when the lighting around the screen causes glare. Long stretches of screen time can also dry out and irritate eyes. Screen time also keeps children indoors — exposure to natural light is critical for young children. Studies suggest that ultraviolet light plays an important role in healthy eye development and that too much time spent indoors can lead to nearsightedness, cases of which have increased dramatically in children over the past 30 years.
Trouble Falling Asleep
According to SleepFoundation.org, the blue light from digital screens, particularly at night, affects melatonin production by tricking the brain into thinking it’s daytime, and thus possibly altering the brain’s sleep rhythms. For children, who ideally should get as much as 10 hours of sleep a night and often use their devices in the evening, that can be detrimental