The worst part of the pandemic for 11-year-old Sandy is that he can’t see his friends. The best part is that limits on how much time he spends online gaming have gone out the window.
During the long months of lockdowns and shuttered schools, Sandy’s father, Simon Evans, 64, from Sheffield, has had to rethink screen time rules, especially now his son’s lessons take place online.
“Sandy sees a few kids but rarely, not daily, so playing video games with them is his main form of social interaction and that needs to be respected rather than policed,” he said.
Almost a year into the coronavirus pandemic, parents across the UK are grappling with the same problem: how do you monitor a child’s time on devices when lessons have moved online and there are curbs on going outside and socialising?
While mothers and fathers juggle work and schooling responsibilities, some have relaxed restrictions on devices to keep restless children entertained. But many worry about the impact, physical and mental.
“My big worry is that his social skills will be diminished and he will not have the random interactions with the world that come when you walk back from school and play with friends in the park,” Evans said.
“There is also the physical inactivity from sitting in front of the screen. It’s important to get out and get exercise, walk around and focus your eyes at a distance and to be disengaged from the machine. The school does do dance and PE lessons,” he added.
However, he noted some positives, such as his son becoming more engaged in the news. Sandy says he now gets news pop-ups every 10 minutes. “When the US elections were happening, I kept on getting notifications about the presidential race,” he said.
The 11-year-old added: “I think I am coping with it pretty well … I have got used to [lockdown restrictions]. The main thing getting me through it is playing online games with friends.”
The UK government has not produced guidance on the amount of screen time children should be exposed to, but in the US the recommended limit for those over two years old is two hours a day.
Toddlers and young children should have no more than one hour of sedentary screen time a day, according to new advice from the World Health Organization. The guidelines suggest a 60-minute limit for those aged between two and five years old.
Some parents are imposing their own limits, using apps that monitor screen time. Ayaz Rathore, 48, from Manchester, allows his 17-year-old daughter three and a half hours of screen time and his 13-year-old two and a half hours.
“My biggest daily challenge is taking my kids off their phones,” he said. “Sometimes they have used up all their time by lunchtime.” Even if they ask for more time, at least he remained “in control”, he added.
“But lots of parents don’t do that, and it is laziness, but then also a lack of understanding that there are features available [such as monitoring apps] to protect the family unit and how much time children spend on the screen.”
One of the big concerns around excessive screen time is how it can affect young people’s moods. Research from the Royal College of Paediatricians on 109 children and young people from across the UK aged 11-24 found 35% said screen time had a negative effect on their mental health.
Physical impacts – including the risk of obesity and the impact on eyesight – have raised concerns. The eye health charity First Sight is recommending people learn the “20-20-20” rule to protect their sight, especially in lockdown: look at something 20ft away for 20 seconds, every 20 minutes you look at a screen.
The impact of screens on sleep has also been the subject of research, though a recent study from the Oxford Internet Institute suggests the impact is modest.
Cerys, 40, from Cardiff, described how her seven-year-old woke up at 4am to use the toilet and, instead of going back to bed, went downstairs to cram in some Minecraft time on his console. She has cracked down on screen time now.
“Fortunately, I heard him going downstairs and managed to get him back to bed and have since confiscated the consoles for a week. We’re going back to a limited amount of TV in the week and consoles for a limited time on the weekend. I hope we can keep that up for a while.”
She said the first national lockdown of the pandemic was worse because schools were unprepared and her children’s screen time went up dramatically. “People were thinking, ‘This will last for three months so let’s push through’,’ and kids got sidelined a bit. Work was demanding at that time. But I do feel this time around, we are a bit more prepared to be strict on screen time.”
Cerys tries to explain things to her children, such as why screens can be bad when they are trying to sleep. “I encourage them to do other things. They are young so we help them with different activities and ideas for what to do.”
Graeme Macdonald, 51, from Glasgow, has three daughters aged 12, 14 and 17. He said screen time had increased “pretty dramatically” during the pandemic but it was an issue before it as well. “Since lockdown in March, the time spent on screens ironically rose as e-schooling became the norm. It’s hard to say that lockdown is the sole reason,” he said.
“It has also become way tougher now that extracurricular activities, gymnastics, guides, after-school clubs are nonexistent. Most connection with their friends is also online although even when they meet outside the phone is a crucial component.”
Macdonald said one positive thing to come from lockdown was learning to manage devices better and also appreciate the positive elements, from artwork to language learning. “In a weird way lockdown has focused this and revealed it to us, but so has speaking to our children about the content and how it is also produced and owned.”
He added: “We also try to ‘share’ a screen – known as the television – to watch something together and discuss it. And imagine a counterfactual where the pandemic occurred in 1981 [without devices] … So we are walking a constant tightrope between my irritation at screens offering too much mindless content, unhealthy content, and productive, nourishing stuff. And making sure they know that big tech is a thing to be aware of.”