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Screen Time in a Pandemic: Does it Help or Harm Us?

Nicole Nadler reports on the impact of screen time in the last year since the COVID-19 pandemic began.

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Photo by Marta Wave

One year ago, the world went into a lockdown – something you likely never thought you would experience. Some people dug out 1000-piece puzzles, others learned how to bake bread but almost everyone around the world spent more time than ever in front of a screen.

Between Netflix binges, Zoom quiz nights with friends, Facetime calls to family members and working or schooling from home, screen time has been the backbone for many to get through this pandemic. Experts, however, are divided on its impact: many say that the increase in screen time is okay, while many others vehemently disagree.

From Education to Entertainment

At the beginning of April, UNICEF delcared that “it is time to recognize the internet as a critical tool for children’s access to learning, play, entertainment and social interaction. In short, they might have a lot to gain from spending time in the digital space.” The article differentiates the ways screen time is spent; gaming, for example, for many children and adults is not only for entertainment but can also be a social experience as well.

CNN also reported early on in the pandemic on gaming, with the author calling her partner’s purchasing of a Nintendo Switch, “the best decision he could have made for us.” CNN cites

Kristopher Alexander, a professor of video game design, broadcasting, & esports infrastructure at Ryerson University in Toronto, Canada, who said that “Video games can be a positive activity during this time of self distancing if we can take the time to discover the types of games that are best for you.”

The New York Times also wrote early on about being pro-screen time during a pandemic. As journalist Nellie Bowles writes:

“Carolyn Guss, a mother of two... was once very screen strict. Her children, 8 and 9 years old, did not own any devices. ‘My son taught himself iMovie, and now the kids make videos of themselves doing basic things — making Jell-O, shooting hoops — then cut it into pretty professional looking footage... then they screen share it with their friends on Zoom. These kids had no screen access before, and they leapfrogged me within days.’”

Mental and Physical Health

When there isn’t a proper balance however, negative effects may begin to take hold. After a year in this pandemic, CBS news reported in early February 2021 that the average screen time per person rose 60%, to more than 13 hours a day, noting that doctors report they are seeing “an uptick of vision issues related to computer use including eye strain, which can lead to headaches, frontal headaches, pain around the eyes and pain behind the eyes, as well as dry eyes and related problems.”

However, UNICEF also acknowledged that children who already spent a significant amount of time on screens, a need for balance with other activities was mandatory:

“A small group of children will inevitably encounter adverse experiences when they use digital technology, this is not directly related to the time they spend online. Rather, when considering such experiences, more attention should be paid to what children do online, the content they encounter, and their life environment and support networks in general.” – Daniel Kardefelt Winther, UNICEF

Psychology Today continues on the same theme with an article published at the end of February 2021 stating, that there is evidence that people who increase time working on a computer, or looking at a mobile device, suffer from poorer health decisions and outcomes. “Even before the Covid-19 pandemic forced many of us to increase our screen time,” the article continues, “research indicated that most adults spend as much or more time looking at a screen as they do sleeping.” This report echoes UNICEF’s thought of the necessary balance behind screen time, and that while when it is overused in the name of fun or recreation it may not have an overtly negative reaction – but when the overuse of screen time is combined with the stress of work (or school) from home the results could have long term downward effects.

“Triggered by some combination of increased screen time, ill-defined work hours, social isolation and family pressures, patients reported feeling that their physical condition deteriorated, as there [sic] ailment progressed to a state that threatened their emotional well-being and livelihood.” – Maureen O'Reilly-Landry Ph.D., Psychology Today

Finding a Balance

Screen time, no matter how you felt about it before the pandemic, has become a necessary evil for almost all of us, and CNN agrees. The article which was written in mid-February 2021 argues that, with an increase of people working from home and children adapting to virtual learning schedules, “devices are more central to our lives than ever.”

Many of us will see a display the moment we wake up, and many will see one moments before we fall asleep. While Brandon Russell admits that it’s unavoidable, he reminds us that “It’s still important to re-evaluate your screen time and consider what steps you can take for a better balance.” In 2020, the screen dominated our lives, and it won’t go away in 2021 – but maybe we can find a way to incorporate it into a healthier routine.


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