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Generation COVID or Generation Connected?

How COVID will change our relationship to screens forever.

Key points

  • Some experts suggest members of Gen C—the "COVID generation"—will be more likely to self-isolate, work from home, and be reliant on screens.
  • One study by the ParentsTogether Foundation revealed that screen time has increased 500 percent for children of all ages.
  • Some students, however, are starting to reject screen time due to its association with online school.

Will COVID-19 be the defining experience of children growing up in the 2020s? According to pundits such as Jason Dorsey of the Center for Generational Kinetics and Haim Israel of Bank of America, COVID is likely to leave its imprint long after it's gone, just as the Great Depression, the Cold War, and 9/11 did in previous generations.

Demographers who name generations—Gen Z, millennials, Generation X, and baby boomers—suggest that we might want to name kids growing up during the COVID-19 pandemic “Generation COVID” or simply Gen C. Experts have suggested that membership in Gen C will affect all aspects of children's lives as they grow up. Simple things, such as shaking hands with others or spending time in crowds, will be impacted. More people are likely to isolate themselves, work from home, and limit their social engagements.

Given the reliance upon computers and screens during the pandemic, Gen C might also stand for Generation Connected because screen use went from being optional to indispensable. Whereas prior to COVID-19, screen time was seen as problematic and often excessive, Gen C and many of their parents have found it to be normal, ubiquitous, and essential—but still often excessive.

 tenkende/Envato
Source: tenkende/Envato

Gen C was already very connected to their screens. In 2019, 40 percent of kids in the United States had their own cellphones by the age of 10, and nearly one-third of all kids were using cellphones before they were 4. Recreational screen time had been a major health concern for parents across the globe, and a 2019 study by Common Sense Media found that 8- to 12-year-olds were averaging about five hours of screen time per day, and teens about seven and a half hours.

Data from our own studies (Kulman and Lawrence, 2021) indicates that 85 percent of students and adults reported that they were spending a minimum of two hours more per day with screens during the pandemic than in the past. Thirty-six percent reported spending four or more additional hours per day with screens. A study of 3,000 parents conducted by the ParentsTogether Foundation found that screen time increased 500 percent among children of all ages. Younger children (Generation COVID) also displayed dramatic increases in their screen time during the pandemic. Perhaps more interestingly, the percentage of kids who avoided screens or spent less than one hour per day on screens decreased precipitously. Screen time has become an everyday/everywhere experience for members of Generation COVID.

Will Gen C continue to be even more connected to their screens than in the past? Screen time was touted as an essential tool for social distancing and reducing the spread of COVID-19 by the World Health Organization in 2020. Physicians, educators, and parents all supported the increased connection of kids to screens during the pandemic.

Screens facilitated connecting with others, opportunities for play, and an escape from the fears and anxiety of the pandemic. And for many kids and adults, screens made learning and work possible. For the months between March and June 2020, virtually all education time was screen time. For at least a good part of the 2020-21 academic year, more than 50 percent of students were engaged in online learning. And while there were many problems with remote learning, especially for younger kids, it is very clear that remote learning (and more screen time) is here to stay.

“The pandemic has felt like my entire existence.”

—Jonathan K, age 17, describing his experience of the past year.

Psychologists are asking whether COVID-19 has changed our relationship with screens. During the pandemic, many adults and kids were looking for diversions to replace going to a restaurant, a shopping mall, or the gym, hanging out with friends, taking lessons, or playing sports. Substitute recreational activities, as well as communication with friends and family, frequently took place on screen rather than in direct contact. Doctor’s appointments, psychotherapy, parent-teacher conferences, and work meetings happened exclusively in front of screens.

Recreational activities became more screen-oriented—more people binged on Netflix and consumed daily news onscreen. Even many of the hobbies and lessons that kids and adults took up during the pandemic had a screen-based component. Cooking, baking, opening an eBay business, and political engagement regularly involved screen time. Our time and relationship with screens became more connected, commonplace, customary, and conventional, lending additional meaning to the "C" in Gen C.

For some kids, however, their relationships with screens changed in a different way. They were overwhelmed by the extra screen time they needed to meet the demands of school. Jonathan K, quoted at the beginning of this article, had always loved his screen time. He liked FaceTiming his friends, playing first-person shooter games after school, or getting paid to work at the age of 12 to create Minecraft maps of Disney World. But after so much COVID-forced screen time, he says, "Looking at the computer makes me feel like I'm in school, and screen time has become migraine-inducing."

Jon went on to say, “Now I associate my computer with being in school, so even my room reminds me of school.” COVID has even impacted his love of gaming. “Besides FaceTiming, I don’t want to be on my computer, and my friends that I usually play games with don’t want to play anymore.”

While it’s difficult to predict Gen C’s relationship with screens in the future, it’s evident that their experiences of the COVID-19 pandemic will have a long-term impact. Some members of Gen C may become more introspective about their relationship with screens. Others may become more reliant on them than in the past; they may want screens to become even more integrated into their lives and perhaps into their bodies. For some, there will be a resurgence of appreciation for activities that are not based upon screen time. No matter what, it is clear that Generation COVID will be forever changed and defined by their pandemic connection and relationship with screens.

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