Is Too Much Screen Time Here to Stay?

Will kids and adults get addicted to screen time during the quarantine?

Posted Apr 29, 2020

Source: Pixabay

For many kids and adults, the coronavirus quarantine is a dream come true. Mandates to stay at home, limit crowd size, social distance, and shelter in place are being interpreted by some as an edict to spend most of their waking hours online or gaming.

Screens (certainly safe from COVID-19, although not from viruses) are the favorite companion of many kids and adults at the best of times. During the quarantine, they serve as the main outlets for entertainment, communication, and relief from stress. Part of the increase in screen hours is simple math. There are more free hours in the day when you can’t go out or partake in normal, out-of-home activities; schoolwork takes less time, and some jobs have been limited or no longer require a daily commute. While a few of these screen hours are spent doing school or office work, most of the rest of the day can be spent on recreational screen time

It’s easy to justify increases in screen time due to safety concerns. After all, we shouldn’t go outside, at least not without a mask, or see our friends due to social distancing. According to the World Health Organization, video games are one of the best ways to keep people safe and social during the pandemic. There is a question as to whether this overreliance on virtual experiences was where the world was headed before the coronavirus transformed our lives or if the restrictions of the quarantine have resulted in further immersion into the digital world and a withdrawal from in real-life (IRL) experiences.

I predict that when we are fully able to go beyond the fears of being infected by every touch, cough, or germ, a greater appreciation of social connectedness will prevail. We might spend more time Zooming our friends and family, recognize that we can use online tools to work from home, and never cáncel school again due to a snow day. But the human needs to be with others, enjoy nature, be physically active, and not be confined might express themselves even more dramatically than in the past. While kids and adults may find themselves doing more of their work on screens, I am hopeful that a deeper appreciation of other non-screen-based activities will prevail and do not believe that too much screen time is here to stay.

I am concerned, however, that a fair proportion of kids and adults will be traumatized by the coronavirus pandemic and feel more comfortable with screen time and virtual experiences than the real thing. Many people are going to be fearful of being infected by the coronavirus or other similar types of illnesses. Even once we develop a vaccine for the coronavirus, many previously levelheaded people are likely to have an increased sensitivity to illnesses that can be shared by touch or through the air. This is a natural reaction to the type of trauma that we have all experienced, and a healthy balance between taking safety precautions and allowing for richness in our lives will be important. 

It may take some time before people feel like congregating in restaurants, going to sporting events, or standing in line for a movie or play. During this interim, I would guess that home- and screen-based activities will become more the norm than the exception. Getting takeout rather than sitting in a restaurant, watching sporting events or concerts on live television rather than attending in person, and having business meetings via Zoom rather than face to face will become more common. Many of these virtual or screen-based experiences may add to, rather than subtract from, the quality of our lives. They may open accessibility to experiences to which people did not have as much access before, such as getting together with one's extended family on a more regular basis or remotely attending a lecture or conference in an area of interest. 

Kevin Dooley/ Flickr
Source: Kevin Dooley/ Flickr

I would argue that we need to learn more about how to leverage screen-based activities to inspire real-life activities, a process I have termed “Whole Play.” Consider how taking an online cooking lesson could make your life (and belly) fuller. Think about how schools could develop thoroughly engaging, personalized, online programs for disgruntled high school students that are not available in a brick and mortar classroom. COVID-19 has resulted in an explosion of telehealth services—all we needed was a pandemic for a quick transformation of access to medical and psychological health services that were previously unavailable due to distance, transportation, or family dysfunction. 

It might seem as if I am arguing for more technology rather than an appreciation of non-screen time. Instead, I am suggesting that we use our experiences of being quarantined to see how screen time can be helpful in building other parts of our lives.

gordonplant/ Flickr
Source: gordonplant/ Flickr

We have been told for years that our societies will become more focused on virtual rather than real experiences. Undoubtedly, some of this has already happened. Very soon, virtual reality and artificial intelligence will be part of our daily routines. Perhaps we will be living inside of our headsets or talking to robots. Will artificial intelligence programs not only solve problems but also serve our needs for social connections? 

Interestingly, one of the potential long-term benefits of the coronavirus pandemic is that it may flatten the curve of too much screen time. We will become weary of so much indoor screen time, yearning instead for nature, the outdoors, peoples’ touch, and face-to-face connection. This is not to say that we won't see an ongoing increase in the use of technologies in our lives or that these technologies won't become even more important for work, education, and social activities. 

Public Information Office/ Flickr
Source: Public Information Office/ Flickr

Viewing the coronavirus pandemic as a trauma shared by nearly 8 billion people could have a powerful impact on behavior. Will being sheltered in place, stuck inside, and relying mostly on screens for entertainment and connection with others alter our group appreciation of life before the pandemic? I am already observing what seems to be a tenfold increase in the number of walkers and riders on our local bike path.

Perhaps I'm being overly optimistic that the other side of the pandemic will see people experiencing more gratitude for basic opportunities to move about, realizing an appreciation of nature and better understanding how everyone on the planet is connected to each other. Hopefully, we will then use screen time to enhance these qualities rather than as a substitute. I can dream, can’t I?