The unusual school, work and home conditions that so many Americans have faced during the pandemic have given researchers new opportunities to study the causes and consequences of family stressors and behaviors.
When school buildings and child care centers closed, that led to an increase in the time kids spent using screens and worsened parent mental health to boot, according to a study from Boston College and the University of Maryland. As EdSurge reported last year, the researchers concluded that this uptick in children’s “screen time” reflected parents’ higher stress levels and lower access to resources, not any change in their philosophy about exposing their kids to hours of TV or YouTube.
As schools started to reopen, the team wondered whether they’d find the reverse effects. (That’s not a given, because humans tend to react more strongly when they lose resources than when they gain them.) Would sending kids back to school in person correspond with less leisure screen time for children and improved mental health for parents?
According to a new research paper, the answer to both questions is yes.
“Parents are less anxious and depressed. That was a pretty solid finding. And kids are getting less recreational screen time,” says Joshua Hartshorne, an assistant professor of psychology and neuroscience at Boston College who wrote the report.
Hartshorne believes that the results help to quantify the high costs of school closures and significant benefits of reopening schools for parents—and therefore, for kids.
“Even if you don’t care about parent mental health for some reason, we know that depressed, anxious parents are not as engaged with their kids,” he says. “Not surprisingly, it’s hard to be a really warm, actively engaged parent if you are struggling yourself.”
The study found that the child care burden was less, and the mental health better, for parents whose kids went to school in person compared to those whose kids were learning virtually or in a hybrid format. It also found children going to school in person spent less recreational time with screens than those learning virtually. How hybrid schooling stacked up with regard to screen time was more ambiguous, perhaps in part because that concept means different things in different places.
Despite strong beliefs among some parents and advocates, there’s only limited research about whether recreational screen time is itself bad for kids, according to Hartshorne. And pandemic realities seem to be softening some people’s stances on the issue. But even so, less recreational screen time may be a positive sign about family health, because “it means kids have better things to do with their time than streaming and gaming,” Hartshorne says. “Give them interesting things to do with their friends, and they are not going to stream Netflix all day.”
The study is currently a pre-print, meaning that the results have not yet been peer reviewed and published by a scientific journal. It draws on data from children ages five to 18 from several national sources. One challenge to conducting the study, Hartshorne says, was the fact that nationwide data on reopening schools was scarce in 2020.
The results of these two studies may have implications beyond pandemic-era decisions about the risks and trade-offs of school openings and closures. Hartshorne believes that they should point policymakers and social scientists away from interventions that aim primarily to inform people and toward programs that actually provide for people.
After all, the study concludes, people probably didn’t suddenly change their beliefs about screen time and parenting because of the pandemic—but their ability to act on those beliefs was dramatically altered by the sudden unavailability of school and child care.
“The assumption is this is a cultural problem with cultural solutions as opposed to a resource problem with resource solutions,” Hartshorne says. “If you are telling people to do something that they don’t have the bandwidth to do anyway, are you going to succeed in doing anything other than making them unhappy?”