How worried should I be about my kids spending so much time online during the pandemic?
Treat screens like food: consume healthy tech, limit junk tech, and eliminate the toxic, says expert
Petergail Williams can't tell you exactly how much time her kids spend in front of screens these days — but it's a lot.
"I kind of feel like from the moment they get up to the moment they go to bed, they're in front of a screen," said Williams. "All I know is it's way too much for me."
Williams lives in Toronto with her two kids, an 11-year-old daughter and a 14-year-old son. Both are doing remote learning, as students in Ontario's COVID-19 hot spots won't return to classrooms until at least Feb. 10. In Quebec, high school students are also doing remote learning.
Between video games, scrolling on phones, socializing on Zoom, and online learning, Williams is worried about how much time her kids are spending on screens; far more, she said, than before the pandemic.
Spike in time spent online
Her kids are not alone. During the pandemic, screen time for elementary school-age kids more than doubled, from an average of 2.6 to 5.8 hours daily, according to researchers at Western University in Ontario. That's in addition to any time spent online for school.
Emma Duerden is the lead author of the study and a Canada Research Chair in neuroscience and learning disorders. She and her team are studying what she characterized as, in effect, a giant experiment on the minds of children.
"It's a really unprecedented time. We've never seen any time like this where, you know, so many children were spending so much time indoors and relying on screens," she said.
So just how much should parents like Williams and others worry about the effects of all this pandemic screen time?
Physical, mental risks of too much tech
Parents need to take the risks seriously, said Dr. Shimi Kang, a psychiatrist and associate professor of medicine at the University of British Columbia, and the author of The Tech Solution: Creating Healthy Habits for Kids Growing Up in a Digital World.
Screens play an outsize role in our lives right now. They're portals to school, friends, family and games — which makes limiting time on them difficult — but there are serious physical and emotional consequences to too much time spent online, she said.
"We are definitely seeing significant impacts on mental health," Dr. Kang told The Dose host Dr. Brian Goldman. "We're seeing increases in video gaming, shopping online, gambling online. So a lot of the negative, dopamine driven, addictive aspects," she said of kids and teens.
Dr. Kang said other mental health side effects for kids and teens include loneliness, body image issues, and reduced rates of empathy and social skills.
Hate online, particularly against girls and women and people of colour, has spiked in the pandemic, she told Goldman, possibly due to increased social isolation and more time spent online.
There are also significant physical side effects to screen overuse. One is "the prolonged sitting and sedentary lifestyle and that crouched over posture. Sitting is the new smoking," said Dr. Kang, and can lead to posture issues and obesity.
Screen overuse can even affect young brains. One study showed that too much screen time in preschoolers was tied to holes in their brains' white matter, an area crucial to the development of cognitive skills, although the authors recommend further study into the association between tech and young brains.
Too much time on screens can also lead to sleep disruption as well as vision issues, Dr. Kang told Goldman.
Debbie Jones is a clinical professor of optometry and vision science at the University of Waterloo. She studies myopia, also known as nearsightedness, in kids.
She said the research isn't definitive, but it suggests an association between myopia and screens, and she's concerned one of the consequences of the pandemic could be a marked increase in kids with vision problems.
But parents can do something pretty simple to help. "We showed categorically that if you spend more time outside, you are less likely to become myopic," Jones said.
She also said parents can make sure kids rest their eyes by taking breaks from screens, and looking out a window or around the room.
The Canadian Pediatric Society recommends no screen time for children under two, less than one hour a day for kids two to four, and for children five to 17, no more than two hours a day of recreational screen time.
Tips for parents
Dr. Kang said it may be more helpful to think of quality versus quantity.
"It is really hard to quantify time now. Technology is fully embedded in our lives. But what's more important is what's happening on those screens, the quality of the interaction," she told Goldman.
For example, one hour of pornography for a 14-year-old is "highly toxic, whereas two hours of FaceTime with your grandparents is healthy."
Dr. Kang admitted that parents can be "overwhelmed" at the thought of reining in their kids' screen use.
She said an easy guideline is to compare tech to nutrition: consume healthy tech, limit junk tech, and completely eliminate toxic tech.
Healthy tech, according to Dr. Kang, is tech that is actually good for you. That includes any tech that releases endorphins or oxytocin (exercise and meditation apps) or creates a meaningful connection (video conferencing with friends) or leads to creativity and learning (coding, robotics, art or music).
Junk tech releases dopamine and includes "mindless scrolling, mindless zoning out video gaming. It's like eating a bag of chips. Once in a while is OK, but it's empty calories. So limit and monitor the junk tech," said Dr. Kang.
And avoid toxic tech altogether "just like we avoid toxic foods like aspartame and spoiled milk," she said. "Toxic tech causes your child's stress and is linked to the release of cortisol...The negativity, the hate, the cyberbullying, but also things like prolonged sitting, sleep deprivation and also FOMO or fear of missing out."
Signs of screen addiction
If your kid is showing signs of screen addiction — they're online compulsively in an uncontrolled way, they crave it when they don't have it, and it's negatively impacting the rest of their life — seek help from a medical professional, said Dr. Kang. And the same goes for adults.
But if your kid is like so many these days, online too much, consuming too much junk tech, Dr. Kang has some advice for parents: start with yourself and assess your own tech diet. She recognized that's not easy in a pandemic when parents are under stress and also vulnerable to bad screen habits.
But the good news is that most kids — and parents — can change their screen habits with some persistence.
"The brain continues to develop and wire and rewire until the moment we die. That's called neuroplasticity. I say neuroplasticity is a six syllable word for hope because it means we can always learn and change," said Dr. Kang.
Petergail Williams says she's optimistic that when this is all over, her kids will give up their pandemic screen habits.
One good sign? She already sees her kids getting tired of all the screen time.
"They're sick of it. My kids have started to come to me and ask to play actual games like Connect Four," she laughed.
Written and produced by Willow Smith