The brunt of the COVID-19 pandemic may be passing, but life has not gone back to “normal” for everyone – and for the generation of young people who lived through these past three years, the effects could last years.
The amount of time children spend looking at screens recreationally has increased, on average, by more than an hour every day because of the pandemic, says a District School Board of Niagara expert.
That change is contributing to rising mental health concerns and causing students to have trouble focusing on school, said Dr. Amanda Sherman.
During the pandemic, screens supplemented the loss of face-to-face contact students faced due to lockdowns and school closures, Sherman, the board’s mental health lead, told participants at a public forum hosted by Niagara District Council of Women.
“We know there was a lot of social isolation at that time: children were disconnected from their peers, which is particularly important,” Sherman said.
She referenced 46 studies of more than 29,000 students that found screen time increased during the pandemic: on average, before COVID, children were spending 162 minutes, or less than three hours, a day on screens.
During the pandemic, that increased by 84 minutes to 246 minutes. And that total hasn’t changed much post-pandemic, Sherman said.
“This is really challenging,” she said. “For individuals aged 12 to 18, screen time is really a problem still.”
Increased screen time has more serious lasting impacts, Sherman said: during the first year of the pandemic, she said, a quarter of children and adolescents reported clinically elevated depression symptoms and 21 per cent reported clinical anxiety symptoms.
Two studies conducted this year also confirmed increased emergency room visits, hospitalizations and hospital admissions for self-harm.
Diagnoses of anorexia also went up during the pandemic, climbing from 25 cases to 41 per month.
At the online meeting where Sherman spoke, one of the topics of concern was mental health, in response to the school board including this as a focus area in its five-year plan, published in late October.
Coming back to school in person, Sherman said, she noticed students are still having a hard time focusing on classes and practising self-regulation.
“Students are still getting used to routines and structures of being at school,” she said, “after spending for what during their short lives is a very significant amount of time at home, learning off of screens and going back and forth from home and school during closures.”
In order to address these lingering issues, the school board has turned to a program called Mind Up.
“Students learn in this program about neuroscience, about brain regions and, specifically, about mindfulness practices,” Sherman said.
She also emphasized the use of the term “brain break,” which can include things like those mindfulness practices, as well as drawing, journaling, stretching, or even just pausing to use your senses.
Teachers are especially aware of the damage excess screen time can have on students and are taking steps to address it, Sherman said.
“Educators do try as much as they can to do activities that aren’t screen-based,” she said.
We live in a digital world and tech is integrated into the classroom, but balance is crucial, Sherman said.