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By UNICEF Australia
15 July 2022

How can children and families make the most of the increased reliance on screens — which are helping to maintain a sense of normalcy during lockdown — while also finding the right balance with other important activities?

With more than 130 countries restricting movement to contain the COVID-19 pandemic, It’s no surprise that a lot of children and their parents are increasingly connecting to the outside world through screens they might have once regarded with restraint or even reproach.

Child on computer© UNICEF/UNI325487/Bajornas

Screen-time and gaming in the time of COVID-19

Research shows that social media and video games provide temporary escape from real life and offer valuable social engagement.

Digital game distributors, such as Steam report a considerable increase in the number of daily users over the past weeks: from 19 million in early March to a record high of 23.5 million in early April. Especially popular are social simulation games like the Animal Crossing series or Minecraft, which allow players to build their own worlds alone or together with friends.

A girl, 15, taking notes in front of the laptop
A girl, 15, taking notes in front of the laptop
© UNICEF/UNI324029/Diarassouba

Too much screen time? What about the risks?

A recent body of high-quality research has demonstrated that for children the impact of screen-time on mental health and well-being is fairly small. Other factors, namely parental support, family relationships or adverse childhood experiences are more impactful than screen-time. Little evidence still exists in low-and-middle-income settings, where access is more limited.

UNICEF’s recent report — Growing up in a connected world — states that while a small group of children will inevitably encounter adverse experiences when they use digital technology, this is not directly related to the time they spend online. Rather, when considering such experiences, more attention should be paid to what children do online, the content they encounter, and their life environment and support networks in general. Not too much, not too little, but just the right amount of screen time seems to be optimal for children.

Screen-time has also been blamed for physical inactivity — a leading risk factor for global mortality which also contributes to childhood obesity. Some argue that restricting the time children spend with screens is one way to increase physical activity, but this is not supported by research. For many stuck inside today, the opposite actually holds true: active video games or exercise videos might be their best chance for physical activity.

Teo (7) is having his very first classes by Zoom, during COVID-19 quarantine.
Teo (7) is having his very first classes by Zoom, during COVID-19 quarantine.
© UNICEF/UNI322651/Mora Flores

Screen time guidelines - what can be done?

How can families make the most of increased reliance on screens — which are helping to maintain a sense of normalcy during lockdown — while also finding the right balance with other important activities?

Here are some key things to take into account:

Staying in touch with friends is important: During extraordinary times with a high degree of uncertainty and irregularity, it is vital for children to play and communicate with friends. Video games and social media can offer meaningful experiences during a pandemic: connectedness in a time where social interaction is reduced; entertainment when options are limited; and a tool to help take the edge off of anxiety and fear.

Active engagement and parental oversight: Legitimate reservations around the content of some video games and a range of online risks that might befall children playing them can be mitigated by active parenting strategies. These include talking to children about their online experiences; making sure they do not play games intended for an older audience; and observing their general mood and happiness as they play. Playing video games together with children is a good way to ensure that they stay safe. It can also be a lot of fun!

 Physical activity in front of screens:  Keep in mind that during a pandemic many children will not get the amount of physical activity that they are used to. Socialising and play is, for now, confined to the screen, we need new ways to help children remain active. With restricted outdoor movement, the World Health Organization (WHO) recommends active video games and online exercise classes as a way to stay healthy at home. This is a good solution because it provides both physical activity and entertainment. This advice is useful both during the COVID-19 pandemic but also when life goes back to normal. WHO also offers ideas for stay-at-home physical activity that are not digitally driven, which is useful for families with limited connectivity.

As the COVID-19 pandemic shows, we are increasingly reliant on digital technology. It has become a lifeline for those of us confined to our homes.

Now is a good time to revisit assumptions linked to children’s use of these devices, which often stem from fear of the unknown. To counter these fears, parents might use the extra time they spend together with their children while in lockdown to learn more about each other’s worlds, both digital and physical.

See our COVID-19 resources for more advice, tips and activities to support you and your family through the coronavirus pandemic, from UNICEF experts in health, early childhood development, education, and child protection.

A novel coronavirus (CoV) is a new strain of coronavirus. The disease caused by the novel coronavirus first identified in Wuhan, China, has been named coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) – ‘CO’ stands for corona, ‘VI’ for virus, and ‘D’ for disease.

Formerly, this disease was referred to as ‘2019 novel coronavirus’ or ‘2019-nCoV.’ The COVID-19 virus is a new virus linked to the same family of viruses as Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) and some types of common cold.

The virus is transmitted through direct contact with respiratory droplets of an infected person (generated through coughing and sneezing), and touching surfaces contaminated with the virus. The COVID-19 virus may survive on surfaces for several hours, but simple disinfectants can kill it.

Symptoms can include fever, cough and shortness of breath. In more severe cases, infection can cause pneumonia or breathing difficulties. More rarely, the disease can be fatal. 

These symptoms are similar to the flu (influenza) or the common cold, which are a lot more common than COVID-19. This is why testing is required to confirm if someone has COVID-19.

It’s important to remember that key prevention measures are the same – frequent hand washing, and respiratory hygiene (cover your cough or sneeze with a flexed elbow or tissue, then throw away the tissue into a closed bin). Also, there is a vaccine for the flu – so remember to keep yourself and your child up to date with vaccinations. 

Here are four precautions you and your family can take to avoid infection:

1. Wash your hands frequently using soap and water or an alcohol-based hand rub 
2. Cover your mouth and nose with a flexed elbow or tissue, when coughing or sneezing, and throw away the tissue into a closed bin
3. Avoid close contact with anyone who has cold or flu-like symptoms
4. Go to the doctor if you have a fever, cough or feel that it is difficult to breathe