It’s official: Kids are spending more time on screens now than they were before the pandemic.
That development is perhaps not surprising given the fact that many school and social activities migrated online during the past two years, says Mike Robb, senior director of research at the nonprofit Common Sense Media, which recently released a research report detailing the findings. But, he adds, it creates an opportunity for parents, educators and the kids themselves to think intentionally about the “content and context” of their daily media use.
According to Common Sense, between 2015 and 2019, screen use among teenagers (ages 13 to 18) increased by 11 percent. Among tweens (ages 8 to 12), it increased by just 3 percent.
Enter the pandemic, which led to canceled club meetings and sporting events, online learning and restricted socialization. Between 2019 and late 2021, screen use among both teens and tweens grew an additional 17 percent.
In whole numbers, teenage screen use totals eight hours and 39 minutes per day. For tweens, it’s about five-and-a-half hours.
“It’s a lot,” says Robb. “It doesn’t necessarily tell us what they’re doing with that screen time, but it reinforces the need to establish a healthy balance and think more critically about what kids are watching and engaging with.”
Robb points out that the survey, which had about 1,300 total respondents, was completed in September 2021, just as many students were returning to in-person school—in some cases, for the first time in two years. There might have been a decline in screen use since then, though he’s seen no evidence of that reduction.
He also notes that the pandemic is likely not the only explanation for kids’ increased use of screens.
“Most people’s temptation is to say that the pandemic changed things so much and kids were at home, so it was easier to keep kids occupied and turn them to screens,” Robb explains. “That’s a likely and major contributor to this increase. But we cannot discount the fact that we’ve seen the emergence of new platforms that may add to media time and media diets.”
One platform in particular stands out.
“TiKTok is a big force,” he says. “TikTok wasn’t as big a platform in 2019, and it wasn’t even a thing in 2015.”
Though TikTok is technically classified as “online video” by Common Sense, rather than social media, both categories account for a significant portion of kids’ average daily screen use, along with gaming. According to the report, kids prefer watching videos on platforms like TikTok and YouTube to any other media.
Separately, a survey conducted by Forrester late last year found that 63 percent of teens used TikTok on a weekly basis, and indicated its growth was taking market share away from rival platforms like Instagram.
Overall, social media use didn’t see a massive uptick, but it did continue an upward trajectory, particularly among tweens.
In 2019, 13 percent of tweens said they used social media—Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook, Twitter or another platform—every day, and 31 percent said they’d used it at least once. Today, 18 percent said they use it every day, and 38 percent said they’d used it ever.
“Every time we do this [survey], it creeps up, creeps up, creeps up,” Robb says of kids’ social media use. “That’s something—because those platforms were not made for young children. They’re not made for tweens. They’re barely made for teens.”
Robb hesitated to caution against reducing screen time altogether, and instead said that families and educators should be thinking about what healthy screen use looks like, including what kids are using and how they are using it. He also said that screen time needs to be balanced with adequate sleep, outdoor activities and other experiences.
“I don’t want to give this [report] a super positive or super negative valence,” says Robb. “I do think it is clear from this data, especially social media use data, that it is a real call to make sure social media companies are being careful and accountable with young users on their platforms.”