The COVID-19 pandemic dramatically increased the amount of time young people spent in front of screens. With classroom instruction shifted online and in-person social activities limited, children and teens spent more time than ever in front of computers, phones, TV and other devices. According to one study, screen time doubled for adolescents during the pandemic, from 3.8 hours to 7.7 hours per day.
The unique conditions of the pandemic made increased screen time a practical necessity for young people. But this reality also complicated a longtime conundrum for families: the right amount of time for children to spend with television, computers, phones and tablets. For decades, parents and caregivers have feared adverse effects of technology on students’ physical and mental health, socialization and cognitive ability while also recognizing the need to allow them to engage with modern life.
The nature of this challenge has shifted over the last generation, as time spent with television has declined and hours on computers, phones and tablets has risen. Computers and phones have clearly taken the place of television as a source of preoccupation for teenagers: In 1999, 42.8% of high school students reported watching television more than three hours per day, but that number is now only 19.8%. In 2003, only 22.1% of high school students used a computer or phone more than three hours per day, but that figure has more than doubled since then, to 46.1% in 2019. These numbers began to accelerate dramatically following the release of the iPhone in 2007 and the ensuing boom in the smartphone market.
These recent trends are somewhat concerning because of simultaneous shifts in students’ health. From 1999 to 2019, the share of high school students who were considered overweight or obese rose from 24.7% to 31.6%. The share of students getting more than eight hours of sleep a night declined from 31.1% in 2007 to 22.1% in 2019, while the percentage of students who did not exercise increased from 13.8% in 2011 to 17% in 2019. Health researchers have found evidence to suggest that these phenomena are linked with increased device usage: Students who use smartphones the most are much more likely to be obese, and screen time contributes to insomnia by disrupting the body’s natural circadian rhythms.
While the decline in TV watching compared to computer and phone usage is a nationwide phenomenon, some states still have relatively high rates of television usage among high school students. Many of these states are located in the southern U.S., led by Mississippi (27.6% of students watching more than three hours of TV per day), Louisiana (24.6%) and Tennessee (23.5%).
Missouri ranks at No. 19, with 19.8% share of students who watched three or more hours of TV per day and 42.5% of students who used their phone or computer for more than three hours per day. It’s a number that Paul Hoyt, a father of two kids in St. Joseph, was not surprised to learn.
“It’s a huge problem with every teen I know and even some adults,” he said. “For our kids, we had to set some rules and guidelines to make sure that they knew we didn’t approve of constant TV binging or them on their phones.”
Hoyt’s rules: They have to have a family evening once per week where they would go out and do something or stay home and participate in a game or challenge, all without using their phones. While it’s not always easy to stick to because of work and school, Hoyt said the family is better for it.
“We learn to appreciate those times we’re not endlessly scrolling. It turns out to be really nice to take a break and just interact with each other face to face,” he said.
The data used in this analysis is from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System. To determine the states where high school students watch the most television, researchers at KTCB calculated the percentage of students who reported watching three or more hours of television on an average school day. In the event of a tie, non-school computer and phone use on an average school day — including social media, video games, texting and watching videos — was considered. Researchers also included statistics on students’ exercise, weight and sleep habits. Only 36 states with available data from YRBSS were included in the analysis.
News-Press NOW reporter Andrew Gaug contributed to this story.