Health experts are warning U.S. parents to stop soothing their children with digital screens and send them back to summer camp as COVID-19 quarantines wane.
They say record increases in the obesity rate for U.S. children, teen depression and parental burnout make it urgent that families reduce their reliance on Xbox, Nintendo, PlayStation, Instagram, TikTok, YouTube and video streaming services while the opportunity allows.
Laura Linn Knight, an Arizona-based parenting coach, said Friday that screens have taken the place of babysitters, friends and physical interaction since the pandemic started — and parents are using them for everything from boredom suppression to substitute playdates.
“Screen usage in youth is at an all-time high and the effects are not good,” said Mrs. Knight, a mother of two.
Mrs. Knight, a former elementary school teacher, is urging parents to discuss a screen-reduction plan with their children this summer. She suggests using timers, activity lists, backyard picnics and camping trips to wean them away from digital devices.
“This summer let’s ditch the overuse of screens and find healthier ways to connect with our children to support their mental and physical well-being,” she said in an email.
Studies have warned about the effects of screen addiction throughout the pandemic. According to a 2020 study by Instagram, one-third of teenage girls said “Instagram made them feel worse,” even though they felt “unable to stop themselves” from logging on.
“Emerging research has raised a variety of warning signs suggesting that screen time may interfere with sleep, brain development, and social skill development, and may expose youth to content or images that can have potentially harmful effects,” said Mitch Prinstein, chief science officer at the American Psychological Association.
Mr. Prinstein said that while social media use “may help kids avoid loneliness” if COVID lockdowns resume this summer, it will do more harm than good in the long run.
“If safe face-to-face interaction is possible, the science suggests that digital media should be used only in moderation,” he said.
Screen time among children aged 12 and 13 doubled from 3.8 hours per day to 7.7 hours per day between 2019 and 2020, according to a study published Nov. 1 in JAMA Pediatrics.
The study found that nearly 80% of teens check their devices at least once per hour — and 63% of parents said their child’s social media use had increased during the pandemic.
Other than video chats, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no screen time for children younger than 2 years old. It suggests no more than one hour a day of high-quality programming for children ages 2 to 5.
There is no prescribed limit for school-aged children, but the Mayo Clinic recommends that parents restrict social media use and gaming among school-aged children as needed.
Mental health experts say screens hit children like cocaine, releasing dopamine in the brain that leaves them depressed as the “high” decreases from each hit. Unlike the dopamine released in physical activity, it makes the child feel worse over time.
“Not only are screens creating a dopamine addiction but they can also cause depression through ‘FOMO,’ or fear of missing out,” said Laura DeCook, the California-based founder of LDC Wellbeing.
Ms. DeCook, who leads mental health workshops for families, added in an email that social media “mimics human connection and can prevent the developing brains of youth from making real social connections.”
“The adolescent and teen years are hard enough without this false notion of ‘everyone is living a better and happier life than me,’” she said.
Law professor Ronald J. Rychlak, the faculty athletics representative at the University of Mississippi, said the trend of screen addiction replacing physical activity has already reached the college level.
The attorney urged parents to resist their fears about the cost of outdoor activities and the danger of COVID-19 infection in group settings before their children get too old to change.
“While devices can provide educational benefits, they also cut into physical activity and in-person social interaction,” Mr. Rychlak said. “Help kids fill their time with books, games, and outdoor play.”