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Kids' average daily screen use increased by more than an hour and twenty minutes during pandemic: analysis

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Average daily screen use by children during the COVID-19 pandemic increased by more than an hour and twenty minutes, according to an analysis published in JAMA Pediatrics on Monday.

Researchers looked at screen time and the types of devices used between January 1, 2020, and March 5, 2022, by extracting data from 46 studies on nearly 30,000 kids in multiple countries.

The children in the studies ranged from ages 3 to 18, with the average age of 9.

Kids' average daily screen use increased by 1.5 times during the pandemic -- from a baseline of 162 minutes a day before the pandemic to 246 minutes during the pandemic, according to the analysis.

"These findings should be considered along with another meta-analysis suggesting a 32% decrease in children's engagement in moderate to vigorous physical activity during the pandemic," the researchers wrote. "Policy-relevant pandemic recovery planning and resource allocation should therefore consider how to help children, adolescents, and families to 'sit less and play more' to meet the 24-hour movement guidelines."

The largest increase in screen use was seen in adolescents ages 12 to 18 because they were more likely than younger kids to "own and access digital devices," wrote the researchers, who are from the University of Calgary, Alberta Children's Hospital Research Institute, and University College Dublin.

The average amount of time spent on handheld devices and personal computers went up by 44 and 46 minutes a day, respectively, researchers found.

"This finding aligns with the observation that, as devices became a central component of daily living and interactions during the pandemic—for work, schooling, learning, socialization, and recreation alike—1 in 5 parents reportedly purchased new devices for their children, primarily computers and handheld devices," the analysis said.

The researchers noted that the context of screen time should be examined because most children shifted to online school during the pandemic and screen time could have increased for educational use. Also, some of the studies in the analysis used retrospective estimates, meaning parents could have misremembered how much screen time their kids had before the pandemic.

Parents and caregivers' amount of screen time, as well as their stress levels, during the pandemic were found to be associated with the duration of kids' screen use, the analysis said.

Ultimately, the researchers said, the increase in screen time could have been temporary for some kids when schools were closed, but in other cases, "sustained problematic screen use habits may be formed."

"Practitioners working with children, adolescents, and families should focus on promoting healthy device habits among youths, which can include moderating and monitoring daily use, choosing age-appropriate programs, and prioritizing device-free time with family and friends. Youths should be prompted to think about how they use screens and whether they can focus their time on screens to meaningfully connect with others or as a creative outlet. It is also critical to discuss balancing screen use with other important daily functions, such as sleep and physical activity," the researchers advised.

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