Troubling Pandemic Viewing Trends

Written by PTC | Published January 20, 2021

Ten months and counting since folks were told to stay home to stop the spread of the COVID-19 virus. For most of those ten months, activities outside the home like team sports, after school activities, clubs – or even just socializing with friends -- have been severely curtailed or halted altogether. This complete upheaval of “normal” activity has been difficult for everyone, of course, but the impact on children has been especially profound.

The New York Times reports that children’s screen time has soared during the pandemic.

“Nearly a year into the coronavirus pandemic, parents across the country – and the world – are watching their children slide down an increasingly slippery path into an all-consuming digital life. When the outbreak hit, many parents relaxed restrictions on screens as a stopgap way to keep frustrated, restless children entertained and engaged. But, often, remaining limits have vaporized as computers, tablets and phones became the centerpiece of school and social life, and weeks of stay-at-home rules bled into nearly a year.”

For years, pediatricians have been advised parents to limit kids screen time. No screen time at all for children ages under 18-24 months; an hour or less for children ages 2-5; 90 minutes or less for children aged 6-12; two hours or less for teens, or 15 minutes of physical activity for every hour of screen time.

But those guidelines have been exploded, as the Times reports that children’s screen time had already doubled by May 2020 as compared with the same period the year before.

Some additional screen time was inevitable as school districts moved to online learning, but the spike in screen time isn’t just because of digital classrooms and homework. According to the Times, “An app called Roblox, particularly popular among children ages 9 to 12 in the United States, averaged 31.1 million users a day during the first nine months of 2020, an increase of 82 percent over the year before.” Children in the U.S. spent an average of 97 minutes a day on YouTube in March and April of 2020, up from 57 minutes in February (pre-lockdown), and nearly double the use a year prior. Kids are also spending more time on apps like TikTok and Snapchat and games like Fortnite.

Unfortunately, that’s not the end of the story.

In addition to relaxing family rules about screen time, two other articles point to a disturbing trend. Families are also relaxing rules about content.

In a piece for the New York Times, Carrie Goldman writes “It’s OK to Watch ‘Schitt’s Creek’ With Your Kids!” “Back in August,” she explains, “my family of five had hit a pandemic wall. We had played every board game, read every book and baked all the chocolate desserts we could find. By October, we had even grown listless with our TV options.” And so, despite the mature content, she allowed her 10-year-old and 13-year-old to watch “Schitt’s Creek,” a TV-MA-rated series available on Netflix.

Meanwhile, The Washington Post is also encouraging parents to toss aside any qualms about exposing kids to mature content by suggesting the TV-MA-rated “Bridgerton” among recommended shows to watch with your kids.

One episode of Bridgerton contains (according to video filtering service Vid Angel) 31 scenes of sex and 19 scenes of nudity. Yet the Washington Post lists it among recommended viewing for children as young as 16.

We’ve certainly had our issues with the TV ratings system – but our concerns almost always center around the tendency of TV ratings to be too permissive; content that should rightly be rated TV-MA is often given a less-restrictive TV-14 rating.

So if a program is rated TV-MA, you can believe that rating is well deserved, and should be heeded.

The New York Times piece provides this cringe-inducing justification for exposing kids to inappropriate content: it gives families “more to talk about” when not much else is happening in their lives these days.

Some may try to excuse loosening content restrictions by saying, “at least the parents are co-viewing and can mitigate the effects.” But it is still only mitigating – that is, lessening – the impact of on-screen sex and violence. Even co-viewing can not entirely eliminate the harm you may be doing be exposing your child to adult content before they are emotionally or developmentally equipped to process and understand what they are seeing.

Very young children, for example, can not readily distinguish between fantasy and reality. A parent can co-view a scary movie with their child and say, “Don’t worry, it’s only a movie,” but that doesn’t make the child any more developmentally ready to understand that what they are seeing on screen isn’t real.

Indeed, co-viewing can sometimes exacerbate the harmful effects of exposing children to this kind of content, according to some psychologists, if all the parent is doing is co-viewing (as opposed to discussing or contextualizing the content) or if the parent seems to approve or endorse the behavior.

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, “Evidence gathered over decades supports links between media exposure and health behaviors among teenagers. The exposure of adolescents through media to alcohol, tobacco use, or sexual behaviors is associated with earlier initiation of these behaviors.” Social media use is also linked to high-risk behaviors such as substance use, self-injury, sexual behaviors, and disordered eating – and peer viewers of this content may come to see these behaviors as normative and desirable.

These have been challenging times for all of us, perhaps even more so for parents of young children who are desperately trying to hold things together while simultaneously juggling distance-work, distance-learning with limited capacity for physical activity and social interaction. We are all doing the best we can.

Ten months into this pandemic, many families have burned through all available family-suitable programming. There has always been a desperate need for suitable, family-quality entertainment; and that market, which has always been underserved, is struggling more than ever because of the pandemic. Families shouldn’t have to resort to watching adult-rated content because of lack of suitable alternatives.

Take Action. Stay Informed.