Screens in the time of COVID

A groundbreaking study out of San Diego State University in California showed that adolescents who spent more time on new media, including both social media websites and smartphones, were at a greater risk of mental health issues, including depression.

Hardly the first of its kind, research has consistently shown negative outcomes associated with too much screen time.

Nevertheless, the study garnered significant attention in the press by looking at a nationally representative group of over half-a-million adolescents, suggesting that the increased risk of new media-induced depression may help to explain an observed rise in suicide rates among adolescents since 2010.

Fast forward two short years and one world-wide pandemic later, and we’re currently living in a Ray Bradbury novel. Screens are on all the time for everything — education, socialization, entertainment.

New media technology once linked to stress, depression, anxiety, low grades, narcissism, bullying and limited physical activity is being lauded as the ideal tool for bridging social distance.

But for parents who have always operated under the assumption that less screen time is better, moving non screen activities online can feel like sending their children to the lion’s den.

So what is a parent to do?

Here are 10 recommendations — backed by research from social science, public health and psychology — to help guide parents’ decisions surrounding the use of social media, especially in light of social distancing recommendations.

These recommendations are based on over 10 years’ experience researching the impact of social media technology on mental and physical health, as well as my own experience as a father of three children, ages 19, 10 and 5, as we try to remain socially engaged and mentally healthy at home for the foreseeable future.

1: Avoid passive engagement.

With active online engagement, kids are interacting with each other: typing messages to friends, recording videos or having real time conversations. By contrast, passive engagement involves endless scrolling, consuming material created by others. Research typically shows that active online engagement promotes mental health, while passive engagement is associated with more anxiety or depression. To ensure active engagement, look for evidence that kids are typing or talking — ideally to friends or people they know.

2: Avoid toggling.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends discouraging kids from using entertainment media while doing homework, to improve concentration and academic performance.

That focused attention may also have an added benefit for kids’ mental health. Research has shown that frequently switching between multiple Internet browser tabs can lead to feeling stressed and anxious.

While there’s no way to monitor this type of “toggling,” parents can communicate to kids that switching between multiple pages is not ideal; and during school time, look for evidence that kids are spending a lot of time online without getting much work done.

3: Power down at night.

Research shows that Internet and smartphone use can have a negative impact on sleep. Social media engagement, sleeping with phones in rooms and exposure to blue light from computer screens have all been associated with a decrease in both sleep quantity and sleep quality.

To combat this, most sleep experts agree that kids’ devices should be turned off at least one hour before bedtime. Parents might also consider unplugging before bed - and the family can sleep with cell phones charging in a common room like the family room or kitchen, rather than in bedrooms.

4: Get out and get active.

In addition to adequate sleep, the American Academy of Pediatrics also recommends regular physical activity and time away from media.

Even as we’re all increasingly homebound, it’s important for parents to implement sanctioned non-screen time. This need not necessarily include structured sporting activities, but simply a walk around the neighborhood can have a positive impact on well-being. Kids can also dance, hula hoop, throw balls or wrestle.

5: Get smart.

Help your kids to become savvy consumers of information. While the Internet can be a source of endless information, the volume of information kids can access online can easily become overwhelming.

6: Help kids distill information.

• Make sure kids know where to find reliable, age-appropriate information on issues that are important to them.

• Make sure kids know how to distinguish facts from opinion.

 Make sure that kids limit their information seeking to a set amount of time.

 And be a model of healthy information-seeking to avoid information saturation.

7: Avoid using media to punish.

With household tensions running high among parents and children, it can be tempting to view engagement via devices as optional and to impose severe restrictions in response to kids’ behavior.

Yet with kids out of school and separated from friends, parents may be imposing a more stringent punishment than they intend. In fact, research shows that the lowest-level engagement with social media may actually be more harmful to kids’ mental health than moderate, supervised engagement.

8: Encourage instructional engagement.

YouTube tutorials can be a springboard into more activity and are one way to promote independent learning among children.

While makeup tutorials have garnered some negative attention by promoting a focus on image, tutorials can also provide kids with an opportunity to learn from experts on a variety of topics, such as cooking, sports and musical instruments.

One study found that when used for information seeking purposes, YouTube use was associated with improved learning outcomes among kids and adolescents.

9: Talk about bullying.

Bullying occurs frequently in online settings, and as a parent, I’ve often worried my kids would be bullied online. What I was woefully underprepared for was evidence that one of my kids was treating others poorly online.

With so much social interaction taking place online, it’s important to make sure kids understand both how they should be treated, how they should treat others and what to do when they see evidence of bullying.

10: Encourage kids to build bridges.

With schools closed, many parents are worried about our own stress as we juggle multiple roles at home. That said, some groups are struggling more than others. For example, older adults — not just those living alone — may struggle with social distancing and may be less plugged in to social media technology.

Kids may have friends whose parents are still working or who lack reliable Internet access. What can your kids do to reach out during this time? Consider video conferencing with a friend from school or writing a letter to a grandparent or classmate.

Remember that the Internet’s here to stay.  Kids may be out of school, but they are intimately engaged in learning as they apprentice to become adults and learn more about what it takes to run a household.

The lessons they learn about how to manage media distractions, respond to mistreatment or leverage technology for the benefit of learning and social connection will last well into their adult years.

Making a deliberate strategic plan for how kids will engage online is a life skill that kids can take with them throughout the remainder of their education.


Jude Mikal is a father of three and a research scientist at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities School of Public Health, focusing on on stress, health and Internet/social media use.