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As parents’ stress rose during the COVID-19 pandemic, so did their children’s problematic media use, according to a new study.
“Media’s role in family functioning may have been heightened in families structurally exposed to more stressors and with fewer resources for coping through other means,” authors wrote in “Problematic Child Media Use During the COVID-19 Pandemic,” (Kroshus E, et al. Pediatrics. Aug. 2, 2022).
Researchers from the Seattle Children’s Research Institute’s Center for Child Health, Behavior and Development studied the connection during the fall of 2020, surveying a nationally representative sample of 1,000 parents with a child ages 6-17 years. Parents were asked about their own mental health and self-care, screen time rules before and during the pandemic, and their child’s media use. In determining how problematic the media use was, the assessment looked at elements like a child’s preoccupation, withdrawal and lack of parental control over use.
About 33% of children ages 6-10 years and 39% of adolescents 11-17 years had media use scores deemed to be problematic. Parents reported small declines in media use rules during the pandemic for both age groups, but there was only a small association between the rule reductions and problematic media use in the younger age group and none in the adolescents.
For every one-point increase in parents’ scores on a depression/anxiety assessment, problematic media use scores went up 0.46 points among young children and 1.27 points for adolescents.
For young children, problematic media use also was linked to a decline in parental self-care. For adolescents, there was a link between problematic media use and parents working from home. The latter may have been due to having less supervision when parents were juggling multiple responsibilities, according to the study.
“As remote work seems likely to continue for many families, learning more about how families manage child media use when children are in the home and parents are working can help inform approaches to supporting families use of media in a way that is functional and not problematic,” authors wrote.
They noted while screen time can help occupy children and provide enrichment, it also can interfere with sleep, physical activity and socialization, which in turn impact physical and mental health. The AAP has provided recommendations and resources to help guide families on appropriate media use (see resources).
Authors of the study called on pediatricians to consider a change in a patient’s media use as an indicator of parental stress and urged them to consider the impact of inequities in social determinants of health.
“Pediatricians and others counseling families about media use or designing behavioral interventions related to media use must balance addressing problematic media use with the reality that media use may be helping families function in a range of ways and maybe influenced by structural constraints outside of direct parenting control,” they wrote.
- AAP policy Media and Young Minds
- AAP policy Media Use in School-Aged Children and Adolescents
- AAP technical report Children and Adolescents and Digital Media
- Information for parents from HealthyChildren.org on media use guidelines, creating a Family Media Plan and social media and mental health