Sound familiar? A survey by Nottingham Trent University found 82 per cent of parents feel that their children’s screen time increased during this year’s lockdown – and 30 per cent said that their children were now having an extra four hours or more of non-school related screen time per day.
Though schools have reopened, parents are still struggling with tech habits that have persisted beyond the first wave. And as half term begins, with many families stuck at home unable to travel or enjoy the usual days out and family visits, parents are preparing for a week of conflict over gaming, social media and streaming.
“There are no after school clubs because of Covid, so my son is back home at 3.15pm and immediately starts gaming for hours,” says Alice. “I’m worried about half term because the sports club he usually goes to is shut, so I know he is going to want to be gaming all day. It has eclipsed all other interests and the addiction seems impossible to break. I just don’t know where we go from here.”
Even before coronavirus arrived, the amount of time children were spending on screens was skyrocketing, with concerns that this was fuelling problems from obesity to depression and eating disorders among young people. Then came lockdown, and children – and indeed all of us – suddenly became dramatically more reliant on technology for communication, work and study.
One friend tells me her nine-year-old daughter is now regularly on FaceTime and Houseparty: “They were useful in lockdown to keep her connected to her friends, but I feel it wouldn’t have been on her radar at all and now I’m having to enforce a weekends-only rule.” Another feels her teenage daughter’s heavy social media use hastened her development of an eating disorder that emerged this year. “I was busy working and I didn’t realise that she was spending hours exercising with online influencers and obsessing about her body.”
Parenting expert Noël Janis-Norton, author of Calmer, Easier, Happier Screen Time, has spoken to many parents struggling with excessive screen use since the arrival of Covid. “Parents felt sorry for children cooped up during lockdown or isolation periods, and guilty that they’re working and they can’t be with them,” she says. “In those months kids got into screen habits, and now they do not want to give up those habits.”
Belinda Parmar, CEO of The Empathy Business, a campaigner for more women in tech and the mother of two teens, says she “became laxer with the rules” but is now struggling to find a balance. “I and some other mums came up with a pact that all of our kids would put their phones and laptops out of their bedrooms by 9.30pm,” she says. “That has really helped. But the point is that parents are up against thousands of developers and designers creating products that are ever more effective at getting our kids hooked.”
Some experts believe the move to a more relaxed approach to technology will prove to be a positive outcome of the pandemic. “The public perception is that screens are bad and unwholesome, but almost overnight attitudes shifted as we suddenly had to do everything online,” says Peter Etchells, professor of psychology at Bath Spa University and author of Lost in a Good Game – Why We Play Games and What They Can Do For Us. “I’m not suggesting we should be unquestionably positive, but that we treat screen use with the complexity that it deserves.”
Research on the benefits and harms of screens is still inconclusive and contradictory – and experts say warnings and limits need to be more nuanced, considering different types of screen and the context in which they are being used.