How has Covid Impacted Youth Screen Time? Part 1

This month, Common Sense Media (CSM) released its latest nationally representative survey of 8 to 18-year-olds regarding time spent on screen-based media. This is specifically about screen time unrelated to classroom or homework time. They surveyed 1,306 youth in October 2021, when most youth had returned to in-person schooling. The last such survey occurred in 2019, not long before COVID hit. 

Everyone is trying to grasp where we currently are with screen time and kids and where we will be when the COVID crisis is more fully behind us. Today I highlight some of the key findings in the report, some limitations, and what we can glean from the data to help in conversations with young people. 

There is a lot to decipher in the report, so I have decided to make it two parts. Here is the first part, and in an upcoming TTT, I will share the second part.

Hours Consuming Screen Media

For those that just want to cut to the chase–the report found that there has been a 17% increase in screen media for teens and tweens when comparing data collected in 2019 to data collected in 2021.

For those that want to join me in the nitty-gritty of the data here goes. 

In 2019, the average total media exposure on screens for entertainment for all tweens (ages 8 to 12) was 4:44 hours, and it went up to 5:33 hours in Spring 2021. For teens (13 to 18), the number rose from 7:22 in 2019 to 8:39 in 2021.

When thinking about these figures, it is important to keep in mind that the survey asks respondents to estimate how much time they spent on each different activity the day before (it is common to do one-day recalls as a way of assessing overall use).  The researchers don’t know when a person is using media on more than one screen simultaneously.

So let’s say Caleb is doing the survey, and it asks how much time he spent yesterday on social media, and he writes one hour. Then it asks how much time he spent watching shows on services like Netflix, and he writes one hour. It turns out he was doing the two things at the same time — watching the show and using social media. The survey would count this as two hours of screen media, not one. 

Thus the numbers reported in the study need to be taken with a big grain of salt. Unfortunately, there is very little data out there about how much time eyes on screens vs. not on screens. I think this would be valuable information.

What to make of this 17% increase? I can imagine that many parents may be surprised that it is not higher, but remember, this survey was done when kids were back in school, and also, some are doing more after-school activities. This increase does not surprise me one way or another. It will be important to see how this shifts with more time. 

Video Gaming

With all the video gaming during COVID, where are kids now?

For tweens, no change! In 2019 average time (phone games, console, and computer combined) was 1 hour 28 minutes and in 2021 was 1 hour 28 min.

It did go up from 1 hour 36 minutes to 1 hour and 46 min for teens.

So while this is reassuring in some ways, there are, of course, homes in which issues around gaming abound. 

The report points out that there are “substantial differences between boys and girls. Among all 8- to 18-year-olds, boys spend an average of 2:20 a day playing video games, and girls average just under an hour (:54)”

Today I spoke with one 8th grader in Tennessee who said he is playing video games less now with school back in session. When I asked why he said it is because the games that used to interest him aren’t as appealing, and he has a lot more going on with school and is enjoying lifting weights at a gym with his friends. 

It has been wonderful to see that Screenagers: Growing Up in the Digital Age continues to be shown to young people and they so often tell me how much they get from Andrew sharing his story about how his excessive video gaming led to many problems and what helped him turn the corner to a fuller life. Also, teens really appreciate the three Screenagers Podcasts on the topic of gaming and one includes hearing an update from Andrew himself.   

Social Media

Not surprisingly, social media use has gone up among tweens. Of note, when they defined “social media,” they included these examples, Snapchat, Discord, Reddit, and Facebook, and did not include TikTok  — they put TikTok in the online videos category.

Now, 38% said they use some social media vs. in 2019 when it was 31%.

Let’s turn from tweens to teens. 

There is a finding that we parents need to take to heart: only thirty percent of teens say they like social media “a lot.”  It was not 90%, it was not 50%. This, I believe, is because teens have a lot of conflicted feelings about these platforms. I’ve never met a teen who does not easily come up with several reasons they are bothered by aspects of social media.

They often worry about the amount of time it sucks up, the ways it makes them feel, and the list goes on and on.

This ambivalence is in line with what tweens and teens have been telling me for all these years: they want to try to decrease the negative aspects of social media in their lives, which includes time on the platforms. They go on to tell me that they want help in managing their time and choices on screens. Granted, they are not running to their parents saying this, but they feel it and mean it. (By the way, even Instagram knows that teens want help managing their time on social media. Several slides leaked from Instagram by Francis Hogan detailed this fact.)

Just because I know you may be wondering what percentage of tweens said they like social media a lot…it’s 12%.

Two additional interesting findings. First, it turns out that the percentage of tweens and teens who report liking social media a lot has gone down since 2019. Second, the survey found that ”…boys who do use social media do so for almost as long as girls do, meaning the difference in overall average daily time devoted to social media between boys and girls is not statistically significant — 1:20 among boys and 1:36 among girls”.   

Questions/activities to get the conversation started:

1. Why might it be that the percentage of young people who say they like social media a lot has gone down in the past two years?

2. How would you design a study to depict how much time is spent looking at screens for non-school activities (as opposed to this survey which calculates total screen media exposure)?

3. Consider turning these stats into a little quiz that you can give to your family, students, and/or youth you work with.

4. If you have a tween or teen (or your students), who might be game, consider having them do the actual survey before going over the answers. If you click here you can download the report and the appendix, which is in the last 5 pages, and has the 19-question survey.