"I feel like we’re firefighting all the time," says Alice* of her struggle to limit her 11-year-old son playing a computer game. "Before the pandemic, he’d sort of lost interest, but during lockdown that became how he communicated with his friends, and now it’s got totally out of control even though he’s back at school. He used to play music, chess, sport, but now nothing is as exciting as a video game and if I don’t let him play every night the battles are enormous."
Sound familiar? A survey in the UK found that 82 per cent of parents felt their children’s screen time had increased during the 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 with many families stuck at home unable to travel or enjoy the usual days out and family visits, parents are preparing for conflicts over gaming, social media and streaming.
"There are no after-school clubs because of Covid, so my son is back home at 3.15 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 the stay at home, 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 her phone chatting with friends or playing games: "It was 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, which emerged this year. "I was busy working and I didn’t really realise that she was spending hours exercising with online influencers and obsessing about her body."
Parenting expert Noel 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. 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 9.30," 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 Video 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.
"Actually, ‘screen time’ is a meaningless measure as it encompasses everything from talking to friends on Zoom, home learning, watching Netflix, YouTube and catching up on social media," says Prof Etchells.
Last year, the UK’s Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health was criticised by some for issuing general but vague guidelines, recommending that "families should negotiate screen time based on the needs of the individual child, and the degree to which use of screens appears to displace (or not) physical and social activities and sleep."
They also recommend that screens are avoided for an hour before bedtime.
Meanwhile, the World Health Organization recommends no screen time for children under the age of two, and a maximum of one hour daily for children up to the age of five.
Dr Amy Orben, a research fellow at the University of Cambridge, is looking into how digital technologies affect adolescent mental health. "I encourage parents to worry less about the time spent by their children on screens and instead focus on what they’re doing with them.
"Activities such as video-calling friends, exchanges via social media or playing Fortnite with friends online will all help keep children and teenagers connected."
But many parents feel that a year spent at home has exacerbated an existing problem, and that their children are now online for an unhealthy proportion of the day.
Parmer says: "I think we are going to look back on this moment and say, what were we thinking, giving kids unfettered access to the Pandora’s box of the internet?
"I’d like tech companies to be better regulated, and more controls to be put in place."
Managing screen time in a pandemic
• Influence and persuade rather than control. Prof Peter Etchells cites research showing that whether parents were authoritarian or collaborative, it had the same result – their kids rebelled. But with a collaborative approach, kids were much more likely to talk about their screen use.
• Be smart about what they’re doing online. Homework is fine, hours of Netflix less so. Try to keep the lines of communication open and agree time limits.
• Do not let screens impact on sleep. Most experts agree that screens should not stay in bedrooms overnight.
• Don’t be too hard on yourself. Most children are spending more time than usual on screens. Let them know that the rules may change when things go back to normal.
• Encourage children to take regular breaks, as excessive screen use has been linked to short-sightedness.
• Incentivise screen breaks and physical activity. Daniel Shin of Nottingham Trent University has created a tool that allows kids to earn screen time by exercising, arguing that it helps children feel empowered.
• Model good behaviour. Work out a plan as a family, and stick to it. That might include no phones at the dinner table, and no screens for an hour before bedtime. Says parenting expert Noel Janis-Norton: "Parents need to be brave and strong, and to be the captains of the ship." Build in lots of special time together that doesn’t involve a screen.
The Daily Telegraph