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Kids' screen time sees a big increase during pandemic

When the coronavirus lockdowns started in March, kids tech firm SuperAwesome found that screen time was up 50%. Nearly a year later, that percentage hasn't budged, according to new figures from the firm.

Why it matters: For most parents, pre-pandemic expectations around screen time are no longer realistic. The concern now has shifted from the number of hours in front of screens to the quality of screen time.

By the numbers: Six out of 10 parents say that before the pandemic, their children’s screen time topped out at three hours, according to data from Morning Consult. In August, seven out of 10 estimated their kids now spend at least four hours with screens.

  • For younger kids, screen time is up even higher. A vast majority (75%) of kids age 3-9 say they have more screen time now than they did last year, per SuperAwesome, with 40% saying it's "much more" and 35% saying it's "a bit more."

Axios spoke with more than a dozen parents of kids from different ages, states and socioeconomic backgrounds about screen time during the pandemic.

  • For younger kids, more screen time may be a result of parents not feeling as comfortable letting small children play outside with neighborhood friends without supervision during the workday.
  • For older kids, screen time has become a lifeline to socialization.

Parents with lower socioeconomic status often have fewer device and subscription programming options to offer to children than richer parents, which also plays into their feelings on screen time.

  • This is especially true for parents who can't afford babysitters to monitor how their kids are spending their screen time at home.

The big picture: One theme from Axios' conversations rang true across all families: not all screen time is the same.

  • Time spent on screens for educational purposes, socializing with friends, family time or games that include physical activity are overwhelmingly considered more palatable to parents than recreational gaming and binge TV streaming.
  • A majority of parents (62%) now see how devices can be used as educational tools, per Morning Consult. This is especially true given that many major gaming and media companies have added educational tools during the pandemic.
  • More than half of parents (51%) view time spent listening to music, podcasts and other audio platforms much differently from time spent in front of screens such as televisions, computers and smartphones.

Games and homework are the most prevalent type of content that parents say their kids are interacting with, per Morning Consult.

  • YouTube and Netflix are the two most popular sites among all children's age groups, per Morning Consult. SuperAwesome found that among smaller children, ages 3-9, YouTube and gaming consoles have seen the biggest usage spikes.
  • Gaming platform Roblox has become one of the most popular platforms for young kids. TikTok has become one of the hottest social apps, especially among older kids.

Yes, but: More exposure to screens inevitably means more exposure to bad content, if parents aren't vigilant. Parents Television Council President Tim Winter said the organization has been concerned about the sexualization of children on streaming services, a concern that has grown during the pandemic.

  • "With kids spiking their media screen time usage, they have never been more at risk of coming across age inappropriate material," Winter said. 
  • "I think there are folks out there trying to fill the void with family and children themed content, but when you have an internet connection it’s Pandora’s box."

The pandemic has forced some parents to try to understand ways to enhance their kids' screen time with more educational resources and safety options.

  • Monster Messenger and Facebook Messenger Kids, for example, have become helpful tools for parents wishing to regulate who their kids chat with.

The bottom line: Despite massive screen time increases, most parents feel less stressed about balancing screen time now than before, in part because screen time at home is now the safest option for kids to be able to socialize and learn.

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