COVID-19 has meant that children and adolescents are spending more time than ever in front of screens. Between remote learning and the loss of many in-person extracurriculars, kids are getting 60% more screen time than they did before the pandemic (1).
This is troubling because research shows the more screen time children get, the more likely they are to experience anxiety and depression (2). This could impact them for the rest of their lives, as people who struggle with poor mental health in childhood are at an increased risk for anxiety and depression as adults (3).
Some types of screen time can actually benefit children who are currently missing out on academic and social activities. During lockdowns, many children relied on digital technology to participate in school or see their friends and extended family (4). Other forms of screen time, such as watching YouTube videos, offer fewer social and cognitive benefits (5).
All screen time exposes children to blue light, which can impact their sleep, and, as a result, their moods, eating habits, and overall wellbeing (6). Screen time also doesn’t give children the same opportunities for language development, critical thinking, or physical movement as other forms of play (7).
Fortunately, there are many activities that children love and which offer the social, cognitive, and health benefits that screen-based activities often lack.
Studies have found that kids consume more fruits and vegetables when they’re involved in cooking them (8). In fact, children who are included in meal preparation eat more food in general (9).
Taking on tasks in the kitchen can also help improve children’s independence and self-esteem and creates opportunities to talk about making healthy food choices (10). Cooking and baking also expose kids to math and science, even if they’re making ‘fun’ foods like cookies or ice cream.
A Canadian study found that less than 5% of children got the recommended amount of physical activity per day during the COVID-19 lockdowns (11).
As a result, children are missing out on the countless benefits associated with physical movement. Moving throughout the day can lead to improved sleep, mental health, and academic performance, in addition to better physical fitness (12).
Spending time outdoors- known as ‘green time’- has also been shown to correlate with psychological wellbeing in youth (13).
Outdoor physical activities, whether biking, swimming, or exploring local parks, provide opportunities for children to have quality time with an adult. Experts say it’s important to make sure children are doing physical activities they actually enjoy, as they’re more likely to stick with them and derive benefit (14).
Reading comic books
Reading has enormous benefits for children, but emerging readers may find large chunks of text intimidating or boring (15). Fortunately, research has found that reading comic books has many of the same benefits for children as other types of reading (16).
With the growth of the graphic novel market, there are now comic books available across a variety of academic subjects (17). Given the inherent love many children have for these books, this can be a great way to expose them to subjects they may normally find boring.
Comic books can also be a great way to engage hesitant readers, and new research has found the combination of text and illustrations may improve reading comprehension (18).
It’s important for parents and other caregivers to take a holistic approach to children’s screen time and how it fits in to their overall health and wellbeing (19). While the CDC recommends that children under the age of two not get any screen time aside from video calling, this may not be practical for many families (20).
Right now, research suggests that screen time has a smaller impact on children’s mental health than other factors, such as how much quality time they get with family (21). If letting a toddler watch TV gives their caregiver the chance to prepare a healthy meal for them to eat together, the benefits of a small amount of screen time likely outweigh the downsides.