Screen Time Limits for Kids Go Out the Window in Virus Lockdown

For David Krieger’s kids in south Florida, screens were a weekend treat. Now, every day is iPad-appropriate.

The family’s schedule tries to cap the fun time on screens for the two kids to an hour between their educational activities, both also on electronic displays: a Zoom reading class, and an online drawing session. But the limit never sticks. With two working parents, “it is a necessity,” Krieger says.

As stay-in-place orders to contain the spread of the coronavirus globally keeps1.5 billion school children home, restricted screen time is becoming a thing of the past. Across the world, from the Krieger kids to Mila, 9, in Paris, who loves attending classes onZoom, and Ruby, 5, in London, who’s now a whiz atMinecraft, children are spending more time on their screens than ever before.

“It’s not ideal; we try to limit, but hell, without teachers it’s impossible to fill the days,” said Rachel Wilson, Ruby’s mother, a business writer who lives near Greenwich Park in southeast London.

While in the past, potential consequences — especially for child development and mental health — drove parents to seek out electronics-free schools and put time limits on their children’s screen exposure, with COVID-19, those concerns have fallen by the wayside. The big worry now is that the surge in screen time will outlast the quarantine as children develop new habits.

“Parents have temporarily lost the battle of screen time, but they can keep control,” saidSerge Tisseron, a Paris-based psychiatrist, who studies the screen-time impact on kids. “They can choose — there’s quality and trash available. This crisis will maybe bring one good thing: a sharp increase in content and selection.”

Dylan Collins, chief executive officer of U.K.-based startupSuperAwesome and a partner at Hoxton venture capital, says kid tech, “which wasn’t in the DNA of Silicon Valley, is going to make a giant leap forward — education tech will benefit enormously; content-moderation tools for parents; chats will have to create many more functionalities for teens and kids.”

He cited the example of Epic Games, the company behind Fortnite, that’s integrating games and screen-sharing in Houseparty, the group video-chat app it acquired last year.

“Children are re-purposing many apps and tools that weren’t meant for them, like Zoom, or games like Fortnite,” said Collins, whose firm advises companies fromLego A/S andNintendo Co. on kid-tech applications.. “All these tech companies arebecoming family services, and they were not designed for that.”

Parents, meanwhile, are commiserating in Facebook groups and downloading apps to help them better manage their children’s screen time.

“You can feel and you can see that it’s an addiction,” Krieger said. “It’s better to not feed it.” Given a choice between screens and Lego, his children always pick screens, he said. “If there was no such thing as a screen, I think my kids could spend the whole day playing Legos, but since they know there’s a screen, they don’t want to.”

Michelle Clarke, a Massachusetts communications consultant, intends to reinstate her no-screens-in-the-bedroom rule for her teens once they go back to school.

“The only thing worse than having your kids exhibit device-addiction effects is experiencing it in shelter-at-home,” she said.

Screen time for children “is bound to go up, doubling is even a conservative estimate,” said Simon Leggett, research director at Childwise, a market research firm in the U.K.

“Online video, audio chats and online gaming are bound to increase, whether general socializing or discussing school work during the day,” he said.

Video-conferencing app Zoom has become widely popular, even among younger kids. The San Jose, California-basedcompany’s stock has more than doubled from the $62 closing price on its first day of trading last April, giving it a market value above $40 billion.

Still, its security features remain a concern for some parents. This week, itwas sued by a user who claims the company is illegally disclosing personal information. Last year, security firmCheck Point notified the company that its systems could have allowed a threat actor to potentially identify and join active meetings. It said Zoom has addressed the issues since.

Screen-time worries remain largely an issue for higher-income countries, but its impact will eventually make it to other nations as standards of living rise, saidUNICEF’s chief of policy, Jasmina Byrne.

“We can only speculate what this huge experiment will bring,” she said.

Last November, theWorld Health Organization said “sedentary screen time should be no more than one hour; less is better” for children below five. AUniversity of Ottawa study in August, “Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development,” showed that children whose screen time remains under two hours a day, who exercise and who get between nine and 11 hours of sleep at night are “less impulsive.”

Nevertheless, there may be no going back. For Childwise’s Leggett, the big question is what “the new normal” will be.

“Societal habits will have to change in the long term,” he said. “I don’t see everything going back to normal, so new habits and skills picked up now by children are likely to continue at some level in some form in the future.”

— With assistance by Samuel Dodge

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