Has the pandemic called time on ‘screentime’? Parents’ and caregivers’ hopes for post-pandemic family media practices

Written by Rebecca Coles, Sarah Healy, Hyeon-Seon Jeong, Amie Kim, Ju Lim, and Rebekah Willett

In the wake of intensified screen media use while locked down in homes for long stretches, parents can now take stock of their experiences and chart a vision for post-pandemic family media practices.

This is a unique opportunity for parents to consider what digital technologies they will welcome (or tolerate) in their homes, and how they will equip their children for digitally mediated interactions with the world.

“I hope that I can have more control.”

In our study, we found the type of schooling (virtual schooling, in-person and home schooling), the availability for someone to supervise children’s virtual schooling and other activities, as well as household makeup (ages and number of children, solo parents, access to grandparents) to be highly relevant in relation to domestic media practices during the pandemic.

Parents whose children were provided computers or tablets in order to do virtual schooling were ready to return the technologies to school. Some parents mentioned feeling completely out of control of the technologies, because the school provided, owned and required children to operate them. Other parents mentioned looking forward to having more control over routines and deliberate uses of screen media.

With children online for school, parents felt unable to have a balanced approach that involved time on and off screens, because everything (school, socializing, entertainment) was happening on screens. Parents indicated that they were trying to have some time in the day when children were not on screens, and because children were online for school, parents were not able to use screen time as part of their family routines, for example, for rewards or for downtime.

Several parents mentioned struggling and having arguments with their children over screen time, and they felt that having more of a routine that involved getting out, going to school, not being on screens for school would mean they would have more control over screen time and a better sense of balance. As part of going back to in-person schooling, parents hoped that schools would also use technologies more deliberately and return to paper-based media, including tangible things children could bring home to share with their family.

Can things go back…or not? “He’s happy to come off the iPad, if there’s something better to do.”

Many parents expressed the feeling they can’t simply turn the clock back – there’s no going back to pre-pandemic levels of screen media and digital technology use.  Most recognized the impossibility of this, given that their children were now significantly older and would have had more access to screen media even without the pandemic, and further, children had grown used to constant access to technology.

Parents indicated that post-pandemic, they would like their children to use screen media more deliberately and purposefully and to learn self-regulation, rather than being the ‘go-to’ tool for entertainment and learning. Further, some parents imagined reevaluating children’s use of screen media and being more flexible with screen time rules, recognizing greater benefits from screen technologies than they did previously.

Some parents indicated that they would continue certain aspects of screen use that developed during the pandemic: for ‘more productive’ activities, different types of learning, or purposes that parents no longer counted as ‘screentime’ such as Zooming with friends and relatives. Still others indicated that the transition to post-pandemic screentime was relatively smooth, and that children’s schedules were busy with activities including sports and home tutoring, and children were self-regulating their screen time and prioritizing time with their friends.

Should things go back…or not? “I think as long as we support the use of online with real life, and it’s a blended approach. And I think it’s absolutely brilliant.”

Parents reported mixed feelings and often said they did not necessarily wish to return to pre-pandemic routines. And, as researchers, we wonder if, even if it was possible, should we consider it? The children who experienced some degree of virtual schooling and the digital intensification that often went with it are two years older and counting, requiring a vastly different approach to regulating screentime and use of digital technologies. Indeed, even the term ‘screentime’, associated with time-based regulation of children’s use of digital technologies which, for a while, was primarily screen media, inadequately describes the ever-increasing scope and diversity of digital interactions involved in children’s everyday lives. The way parents selectively use the term ‘screentime’ to refer to digital practices that they disapprove of and to justify elevated levels of control suggests an implicit understanding that the prevalent practice of regulating children’s digitally mediated lives solely via time has had its day.

About the study

This post summarizes a portion of data from our project, Children, Media, and Parenting in the COVID-19 Pandemic, which includes interviews collected in Australia, Korea, the UK, and the US with parents and caregivers of children ages 4 to 12. The data summarized here is part of a larger project involving three additional countries (Canada, China and Colombia) with 20-24 interviews in each country.

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Our researchers and partners produce regular blog posts and research outputs focused on children and digital technology.