Young children and the amount of screen time they enjoy has always been a controversial issue. And now, after living with COVID-19 for more than two years, a team of UBC Okanagan researchers is taking a second look at how much screen time young kids are getting and how this impacts their sleep and the family dynamics.
There’s no doubt screen time has increased in households across North America during the pandemic, says Associate Professor Dr. Susan Holtzman. After two years of living in isolation and dealing with remote work, home learning and socialization through video chats and gaming, it is time, she says, to take a fresh look at screen habits and how it’s impacting lives.
Dr. Holtzman, who teaches psychology in the Irving K Barber Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, and Dr. Elizabeth Keys, an Assistant Professor in the School of Nursing have launched a new study to determine how screen time and sleep habits may have shifted during the pandemic. They want to know what this means for families now, and in the future.
Dr. Keys explains why this research matters and why parents should tune in.
According to the Canadian Paediatric Society, children between the ages of two and five should use screens for less than one hour per day. But you suspect screen time is much higher, especially since the pandemic began. What’s changed?
Many parents have shifted temporarily or permanently to working from home. While this has had a number of advantages, it has also put parents in the tricky position of balancing work with caring for children who could not attend school or daycare due to actual or potential COVID-19 symptoms.
As a parent myself, I know that everyone has been doing the best they can. But some young children may have gotten used to having more screen time. Now that restrictions are lifting significantly, this is a good time to take another look at the habits that may have formed over the past two years to see how we can better support parents of young children.
What is the connection between a child’s screen time and sleep?
How screen time impacts the sleep of children is a fascinating area of research that is relevant to so many families. Some studies have linked more screen time with less sleep. One reason is that screen time can delay bedtimes. Another possible reason is that screen time can replace daytime physical activity—and we know being more active during the day can help with getting better sleep at night.
This new research looks at mothers and children aged two to five. Why that specific age?
Early childhood is a critical period for physical, social and emotional development—as well as the development of healthy habits. My research focuses on improving sleep health to promote healthy relationships in children and their families, starting in early childhood.
Sleep difficulties are very common in families of children under the age of five. These sleep difficulties can often disrupt parental sleep. In particular, we know the COVID-19 pandemic has been quite hard on mothers, who are already at increased risk of having sleeping difficulties. We all know how important a good night’s sleep is for our mental and physical wellbeing.
We did a similar study in 2019 and more than 450 local parents participated. We are doing the survey again to look at the impact that COVID has had on the lives of families with young children. We are especially interested in looking at changes to sleep, screen time and family relationships. Are people less concerned about screen time? Is it seen as more normative? Has sleep changed in children and their mothers, who have had to juggle so many stressors over the last two years? What has been the impact on our family relationships?
To help with our research, we are looking for about 200 mothers of children aged two to five in the Central Okanagan to fill out a brief online survey located at: www.familyscreentime.ca.