The Virtual Lives of Children: A Screen-Time Pandemic?

Remote learning and social distancing have ramped-up internet use among kids— but not without impact to their mental health. Morgan Stanley has partnered with the Child Mind Institute to study the impact and make recommendations.
Nov 29, 2021 9:00 AM ET
Blog

By the time you finish this sentence, you will have spent four more seconds staring at a screen, an activity that most of us are now spending significantly more time doing since the pandemic hit. For kids, that amount has nearly doubled to roughly six hours a day on average.1  During the pandemic, more children are living their lives virtually than ever before, from toddlers on tablets while mom is on a conference call, to teenagers juggling online classes with hours-long group chats.

The internet has proven indispensable, allowing work, school, socializing, shopping, and recreation to take place virtually amid extended lockdown and social distancing. As we’ve grown more dependent on this web of digital connections, many families have relaxed their rules around screen time, despite worries about the potential near- and long-term effects on children who seem to be plugged in all the time. Deep down, many of us are thinking, “This can’t be healthy.” But just how unhealthy are the stresses of sustained online living and learning?

The Morgan Stanley Alliance for Children's Mental Health (Alliance) and the Child Mind Institute, a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping children and families struggling with mental health and learning disorders, have been working on assessing the issue of “problematic internet use” (PIU)2, and ultimately trying to figure out how to address PIU in children.

Baseline Behaviors

Not all screen time is equal. Many children are benefiting from virtual schooling and socializing during the pandemic, including some who have anxiety or have struggled to connect with other kids in person. However, excessive internet use can also trigger unhealthy behavior, including loss of sleep and interest in relationships or activities, neglecting schoolwork, going online to avoid unpleasant feelings and acting out when internet time is limited. If any of this sounds familiar, it’s because PIU bears a striking resemblance to the kinds of behavior that addiction experts associate with substance abuse—which isn’t based primarily on the amount of alcohol or drugs consumed, but by the problematic behavior and health issues that result.3

“We know kids are spending a lot more time online during the pandemic, whether we’re talking about remote schooling, gaming or video-sharing,” explains Michael Milham, MD, PhD, Vice President of Research at the Child Mind Institute. “We expect that some may benefit from these changes —at least in the short term. Some may be more successful bonding with peers virtually. Some anxious kids may find distanced learning more comfortable. Others may be harmed by isolation or difficulty focusing. We need to figure out which kids are more at risk for the negative impacts and how to help them, how to preserve some of the benefits in the long term, and how to help kids in the transition back to life in school.” 

To find out, Dr. Milham and his colleagues, with the support of the Alliance, have been studying a group of children enrolled in the Healthy Brain Network, the Institute’s community initiative for families in the New York area. Parents of these children will receive diagnostic assessments for their children as part of their participation in research. Last spring, 1,800 of the families in the program completed questionnaires about how they were managing the coronavirus crisis, which included questions about internet use and problematic behaviors associated with it. Their answers provided a baseline of PIU during the first wave of the pandemic.4

New Study Under Way

Now, with further support from Morgan Stanley, researchers are enrolling 1,000 of those families in a follow-up study. Half of these families have children who showed symptoms of PIU last spring. The new study will ask parents about a range of behaviors which include:

  • How often does your child choose to spend time online rather than doing once enjoyed hobbies and/or outside interests?
  • How often does your child play video games longer than they mean to?
  • How often does your child prefer to spend time online rather than with the rest of your family?
  • How often does your child snap, yell, or act annoyed if bothered while online?
  • How often has your child done less schoolwork, skipped a meal, gone to bed late, or spent less time with friends and family so that they could play video games?

Researchers will be looking at whether more children have developed PIU over the ensuing months, and whether those who were assessed with PIU previously have developed more severe behaviors. They will evaluate whether other factors in children's lives put them at more or less risk for PIU.  Researchers aim to analyze and prepare the data for publication in the second half of 2021, and to share the results with participating families, as well as discuss how the research could help change problematic behaviors associated with PIU in their children.

Teasing apart the causes of unhealthy online behavior can be complicated. Children who are obsessed with video games, for instance, could be using online communities and the instant rewards of gaming to cope with uncomfortable feelings, including those caused by the stress of the pandemic. Teens might disappear into games to escape the frustration of a learning disorder, or use social media to cope with depression caused by social isolation. Indeed, previous research on PIU5 from the Child Mind Institute has shown that internet use tends to be more detrimental to young people with mental health disorders, such as depression, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder and autism.

Parental ‘Mediation’

Parents and families should try to avoid the other extreme of categorically rejecting all things online for their kids. Many children’s device usage involves healthy, age-appropriate activities, notes Dr. Harold Koplewicz, MD, President of the Child Mind Institute. Pre-pandemic, many of these activities, such as spending time with peers, pursuing hobbies, shopping, and attending school naturally occurred in daily life. Now, most, if not all, of these can only happen online.

“Parents can encourage the kind of online experiences that can be beneficial by being an engaged ‘digital neighbor’ to kids,” says Dr. Koplewicz. “You can look out for signs of depression, model your own balanced use of connected devices and practice something called parental ‘mediation’ of your kids’ internet use. This involves watching the shows your kids are streaming with them, and even co-playing games with them, so you know what they’re consuming and can talk over the issues that come up.”

Dr. Koplewicz also recommends establishing screen-free time before bed for all family members to encourage healthy sleep habits because poor sleep can also contribute to mental health issues. And finally, he suggests helping your kids practice “mindful” use of social media by pausing to reflect on how being online makes them feel in the moment—whether it’s bad or good.

SOURCES: 

1https://www.liebertpub.com/doi/pdfplus/10.1089/cyber.2020.29185.bkw

2https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2911081/

3https://blogs.biomedcentral.com/bmcseriesblog/2020/05/27/problematic-internet-use-in-children-and-adolescents-associations-with-psychiatric-disorders-and-impairment/

4https://www.medrxiv.org/content/10.1101/2020.08.24.20181123v1

5https://bmcpsychiatry.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12888-020-02640-x