COVID-19 Q&A: Jeff Derevensky on screen time for kids during the lockdown

"For some youth, gaming takes precedence over all other activities and negatively impacts academic/work activities, social engagement, and interferes with family social interactions."
Jeff Derevensky is James McGill Professor, Department of Educational and Counselling Psychology

Children’s screen time has long been a contentious issue for the modern parent. The situation has become more challenging during the COVID-19 pandemic. “The pandemic has created a perfect storm for increased screen usage with children out of school for longer periods of time, their inability to visit with friends and the need for parents to work uninterrupted from home,” says Jeff Derevensky, James McGill Professor with the Department of Educational and Counselling Psychology, is an expert on child and adolescent high-risk behaviours.

In this Q&A, Derevensky discusses video game addiction, its impact on developing minds and strategies parents can employ to place reasonable limits on their children’s screen time.

Derevensky’s research focuses on child and adolescent high-risk behaviours. He is well known for his research on youth gambling, the effects of social media on youth and adolescents’ gambling habits, as well as the social costs of gambling behaviours among young people. Derevensky has worked internationally and provided expert testimony before legislative bodies in several countries and his work has resulted in important social policy and governmental changes.

Screen time and children has long been an issue of great concern for parents. How has COVID-19 impacted the situation?

The pandemic has certainly exacerbated the issues surrounding screen times for parents and children. The pandemic has created a perfect storm for increased screen usage with children out of school for longer periods of time, their inability to visit with friends and the need for parents to work uninterrupted from home. Coupled with remote learning and the perceived need to stay connected to friends through digital media, more and more youth are engaging in increased amounts of time on their computers, smartphones, tablets and video game consoles. As a result, screen time, both academic and recreational has increased.

What makes video games so addictive?

Video games are designed to be immersive. The graphics and story lines are especially appealing to people. For some youth, becoming involved in video games enables them to succeed in a “safe environment” that may not be possible in their other pursuits; failure only means restarting the game.

Additionally, these youth develop friendships or relationships with other gamers that can enhance a sense of belonging. Many of the games played are free (or at least start off free), enabling youth to relieve stress, engage in fantasy or role playing, and relieve boredom.

Are younger children more susceptible to becoming addicted to video games than adults? Are the negative impacts greater for the developing brain?

The research is mixed. While some studies suggest elementary school age children are more susceptible, others say adolescents or even adults are at greater risk for an addiction. Typically, boys tend to game more frequently and experience greater gaming-related problems than girls. Screen time for all children, especially young children, should be monitored.  Young children need to interact with other children and adults to develop healthy social skills. Parents must recognize they are important role models for their children.

What kind of impact are we talking about?

Excessive video game playing can lead to impaired social skill development, inability to make and maintain friendships, academic difficulties if gaming consumes disproportionate amounts of time, sleep problems, and financial difficulties if in-game purchases are made excessively. Mental health problems such as anxiety and depression can also develop or be exacerbated, as well as physical health issues related to sleep derivation. Eating can also become problematic.

What are the signs that our children are developing an addiction to video games?

Needing to play for longer periods of time; an inability to stop when asked; lying about how much time they are playing; stopping or curtailing participating in other activities in order to spend time gaming; interpersonal and familial problems; depression; and increased anxiety. For some youth, gaming takes precedence over all other activities and negatively impacts academic/work activities, social engagement, and interferes with family social interactions. Gaming 20-30 hours per week is typically a red flag; gaming 30+ hours per week is a problem (this excludes educational online games).

What about social media? Is it as addictive or as impactful as video games in terms of negative consequences?

Social media is the medium by which young people (as well as adults) frequently communicate. They can be easily negatively impacted by others which can result in social isolation, low self-esteem and increased anxiety and depression.

How much screen time per day should a child have? Does it differ depending upon their age?

Screen time amounts should be based on a child’s age.  The Canadian Paediatric Society recommends:

  • For children under two years old screen time is not recommended.
  • For children two to five years old limit screen time to less than one hour a day.
  • For children older than five limit screen time to less than two hours a day.

Screen time also has an affect on physical health and children should be encouraged to exercise or participate in other activities. It is important to note that one must look at the context in which screen time occurs. For example, is it interfering with your child’s performance? Is it after schoolwork is completed? What about weekends or holidays?

Remember the importance of parents as role models.

Are there any guidelines we should follow when trying to reduce our children’s screen time? Any strategies?

  • Model good behaviour
  • Monitor the games they are playing.
  • Establish and maintain time limits. It is easy to set time limits but enforcing them becomes more problematic. This is particularly difficult with older children or when we are trying to work from home.
  • Encourage family time and activities with friends.
  • Establish device-free spaces and times in the home.
  • It is important to differentiate between active and passive screen time – active screen time involves learning and schoolwork. During the pandemic, this is particularly difficult to manage.

During the lockdown, our children are physically interacting less and less with their friends. Social media and some gaming help them connect on one level. What can we do to encourage healthy interactions between our children and their friends?

  • If permitted, promote outdoor activities within their ‘bubble.’
  • Encourage online Zoom game playing or activities such as baking as a shared project.
  • Encourage games that require active participation in board games which can be done remotely.
  • Work on a collaborative project.

Final thoughts?

While we are all feeling a sense of isolation this can be invaluable family time. Listen to your children and spend as much time together as possible. Children grow up quickly and we can never recapture the moments we spend with them. In an interview in 2019, President Barack Obama said “On my deathbed, I am confident I will not remember any bill I passed. I won’t be thinking about the inauguration. I will be thinking about holding hands with my daughters and taking them to a park or seeing them laugh while they are playing in the water. That is going to be the thing that lasts.”


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Scott Conrod
3 years ago

Good advice Jeff,

Scott Conrod

J victoria Gersowsky
3 years ago

Whilst I agree with the majority of the piece, I think this predominantly applies to normative/neurotypical people/children, for a lot of people both young and old the immersive nature of gaming and an online life created through such mediums is actually a benefit and a way or negating the social isolation being neurodiverse can create, in this way, gaming and screen time is something akin to leisure and socializing, the problem with articles like this is that it applies a negative narrative to something which for a lot of Autistic people is a comfort and it demonizes those who spend… Read more »

Carl E Robertson
3 years ago

Having been in the classroom with both Middle and High school students and now listening to many parents of this age group, the excessive amount of time students are left alone to entertain themselves both during zoom classes and after the school hours is concerning. Basically, there are NO meaningful controls on students pursuing and sharing their “gambling, gaming and video gaming successes (?)” with other students! Just research to find Youth Gambling Prevention programs and the States that are successful in utilizing these resources. There are some but too few! There are some States that actually include gambling related… Read more »