How are young people using screens during lockdown—and how can we best support them?

Digital devices have become the main way for young people to learn, talk, and play during the pandemic—highlighting and amplifying existing inequalities.


‘Screen time’ never provided a holistic way of understanding how young people use digital devices. While it is useful in some contexts, it is a crude measure that fails to distinguish different activities, and calls for a more nuanced conversation than a single time figure allows. 

That’s partly why our guidelines published before the pandemic instead stressed the need to focus on ways of using screens. Under lockdown, advice like “one hour per day for two to five year olds” from the American Academy of Pediatrics becomes difficult to follow. 

Dr Max Davie, RCPCH’s Officer for Health Improvement, co-authored the College’s guidelines to be more robust: “The problem with arbitrary figures is that in situations like lockdown, the rules are thrown out as soon as a threshold is crossed—and then you’re left with no rules at all.” 

"If we stuck to our old rules, our youngest would struggle to squeeze in a play date—let alone finish her school work." - Helen Halliday, mother

Instead, Max suggests that it is better to make sure that children are getting the right outcomes in spite of increased screen time—namely daily exercise, high-quality school work, and a good night’s sleep. WHO guidelines may be prescriptive, but families are adapting based on their own needs

Helen Halliday is a mother-of-three who has had to shift how her family thinks about screens in response to lockdown. While juggling a long recovery from COVID-19 infection, she and her husband have been adapting to remote working and their new role as home school teachers.

“Our youngest is in primary school and has special educational needs. This can make it tough for her to complete her daily work within the three hour window recommended by the school,” she says. “But we’re fortunate to have the means to support her when she does get tired and need a break.

“Before the pandemic, we had far less screen time in our home. Now, things have changed a lot. If we stuck to our old rules, our youngest would struggle to squeeze in a play date—let alone finish her school work.”

School’s out: the unavoidable shift to remote learning

Keeping children learning through the pandemic has been a top priority for parents and educators alike. Matthew Gundry currently teaches science to 11-18-year-olds at a school in Outer London. He says that remote learning is working surprisingly well.

“Luckily, we got an online learning platform up-and-running at the start of this school year,” he says. “Our timetable is essentially the same, and we’re using live sessions to speak in real-time as much as possible.”

The Institute for Fiscal Studies recently published initial evidence on children’s experiences of home learning under lockdown. Primary and secondary students are, on average, spending around 5 hours per day on home learning—although there is a disparity between socioeconomic groups.

“The same kids who were most engaged at school are still engaged now,” says Gundry. “A big challenge is the loss of dynamic back-and-forth discussion that comes naturally with direct physical interaction. It’s a small point, but it does make a strong case for traditional classroom teaching.”

Primary and secondary students are, on average, spending around 5 hours per day on home learning—although there is a disparity between socioeconomic groups.

Meaghan Pattani works at Khan Academy, a non-profit providing free resources including online video lessons, practice questions, and guidance for teachers. During COVID-19, they have compiled additional resources for educators and parents, including a daily livestream with Q&A.

Meaghan’s job is to educate educators: “Many teachers have been asked to pivot into remote learning overnight. It’s unusual, but also a great opportunity to reset norms—and involve students in that process. And there’s been an explosion of support within the online teacher community.

“But technology alone isn’t enough to get the best student outcomes. We’re trying to take what works from human interaction to create a good remote experience… Ultimately, given the choice between great technology and a great teacher, we’d choose the teacher every time.”

In a recent piece reprinted as the Guardian’s Long Read, journalist and author Naomi Klein discussed what she’s calling the “Screen New Deal”. According to Klein, Silicon Valley tech giants like Google are leveraging the pandemic to impose a “no-touch future”, including a shift to remote learning. 

For Khan Academy, however, the overarching mission is to supplement traditional learning through an unusual time—an approach that sits well with parents like Helen: “Are my kids adapting and becoming more tech savvy? Sure. But do I want them to eventually go back to school? Absolutely.”

Keeping in touch: social interaction while social distancing

“We are wired for social interaction and, ultimately, children need to be with their teachers and peers,” says Dr Max Davie. “Adapting to life under lockdown is a huge challenge for kids. On the upside, however, we do seem to be seeing fewer cases of cyberbullying since schools have closed.”

Max thinks it’s possible that cyberbullying is an extension of power dynamics that exist between groups. When they are forced to share a space, any unpleasantness can extend online. If they aren’t forced to spend time around each other, it is much easier for them to ignore those they’d rather avoid.

Helen’s experience suggests that this idea is plausible: “There is never any bullying, as such, but I have noticed my kids naturally drifting away from the children they’d rather spend less time around. But sitting in front of screens also wears them out, which could also play a role.”

The Royal Society for Public Health has called for more mental health support for young people in lockdown, noting a rise in mental health indicators such as poor sleep, anxiety, and loneliness—indicators that are important to understand alongside any ostensible benefits.

“We are wired for social interaction and, ultimately, children need to be with their teachers and peers.” - Dr Max Davie, RCPCH Officer for Health Improvement

Another recent poll of around 800 young people from Common Sense Media found that many felt lonely and expressed concerns about the financial effects of the pandemic on their families. While some reported feeling less connected to friends, 40% say that they feel more connected to family. 

Commenting on the survey, Common Sense’s parenting editor, Caroline Knorr, says: “Our latest research suggests that kids are finding solace and connection through electronic devices. They are using them for peer support—strengthening existing friendships and creating new ones.”

Caroline notes that, for many under lockdown, technology is the only way to connect with friends and family. Like the notion of ‘screen time’, ‘social media’ is a rudimentary umbrella term that fails to distinguish between different activities. And bundling them together loses crucial nuance.

“With the rise of social gaming, the line between entertainment and socialising has become blurred. Rather than focusing on ‘likes’, gaming is more of an online party. And while endless scrolling through feeds is not great for mental health, creating content can actually boost a kid’s self-esteem.”

Caroline says that digital devices allow children and young people to connect with others on an emotional level. While this may not replace human contact, it does provide a way for them to connect with their peers—if, of course, they have access to a working device and a stable internet connection. 

The ‘great leveller’? Rising inequality in the pandemic’s wake

As Helen noted, being able to take on the additional challenge of special educational needs is much easier for the well-resourced—for instance, being able to print homework to minimise screen time and tired eyes, to split parenting tasks between two people, or to take full advantage of a big garden.

The Guardian reported the new challenges faced by some parents with severely disabled children. Many have suddenly had to provide round-the-clock care due to inadequate PPE or furloughed care staff, highlighting discrepancies along socioeconomic and geographical lines.

“We’re doing some work with families in urban areas who have children with ADHD,” says Dr Max Davie. “On the one hand, families are at least able to spend more time together. But this can be difficult without any outdoor space or extra care support, particularly if a parent has to work.”

Matthew Gundry notes the benefit of his school having digital infrastructure in place ahead of the pandemic: “My last job was in a lower income area with far fewer resources; I can only imagine what the students must be experiencing now, or what the long-term effects might be.”

The widening gap between children from different backgrounds is one that cannot continue to grow in the pandemic’s wake.

Matthew’s school was able to provide some equipment for students from lower income families before the closure, something that has not been possible across the UK. The Sutton Trust reports that private schools are twice as likely as state schools to have daily online classes, and schools in affluent areas are also more likely to have access to online platforms.

Caroline Knorr is optimistic, seeing the pandemic as an opportunity to finally address inequalities across society: “The pandemic has highlighted inconsistencies across race and class lines. The most important thing is that we work to eliminate them, rather than continue to ignore them.”

Just days before we began writing about COVID-19—and weeks before the College closed its doors—we released our 2020 State of Child Health report. One of its key priorities was to reduce child health inequalities and variation in outcomes. The pandemic shows that this goal is as relevant as ever.

Inequality impacts a child's entire life, including education, housing and social environment—aspects of life that have changed in different ways across socioeconomic groups. The widening gap between children from different backgrounds is one that cannot continue to grow in the pandemic’s wake.