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Lower-Income Ohio Kids Spent A Lot More Time Behind Screens Early In The Pandemic

A student on an ipad in the classroom
Columbus Neighborhoods
File photo

While the pandemic pushed all Ohio kids out of classrooms and behind computer screens, a big spike in digital device use by children from lower-income families is causing some concerns among researchers.

A new study from Ohio State University’s Crane Center for Early Childhood Research and Policy says kindergarten students from lower-income households spent about 6.6 hours per day watching TV and using computers, phones and tablets in the early weeks of the pandemic when child care was shut down. That’s about double the amount of screen time reported in similar studies of lower-income kids before the pandemic.

For comparison, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends an hour or less of screen time for children 5 years old and under.

"(The increase) suggests parents might have been using media as a substitute for the time their children would have been spending in some type of child care that was closed because of the pandemic," said Rebecca Dore, a senior research association at the Crane Center and the lead author of the new study.

"Increased screen time may be particularly concerning for children from low-income households who had higher levels even before the pandemic,” Dore says.

The study involved 151 low-income caregivers of kindergartners in Ohio who completed online questionnaires between May 1 and June 30, 2020.

Dore says it’s important to remember “all screen time isn’t created equal,” as educational videos are considered better for children than non-educational video games or television shows.

Dore says it’s also critical to identify what increased screen time is replacing.

“If kids are getting adequate sleep and healthy interactions with others and time for physical activity, there might be less concern about the particular risks of screen time,” Dore says.

The study showed more screen time both for educational tasks like school work, and entertainment options as parents increasingly turned to screen to help keep children busy.

The study also showed a shift in when kids were most likely to be on screens. In a departure from earlier research, the new study showed that children averaged more screen time on weekdays (6.8 hours) and on weekends (5.8 hours). Dore says that’s not all because of virtual learning.

“Partially the reason why there was more screen time on weekdays than weekends was just replacing that time that children spent in some kind of childcare,” Dore says.

The study also showed kindergarten-aged girls spent more time than boys using media to connect with friends and family. Dore says that should serve as a reminder that it can be important for caregivers to encourage boys to use media to maintain relationship.