Browse all articles

Why We Shouldn’t Demonize Kids’ Screen Time

New research reveals how tweens and teens have been using media to connect, create and learn during the pandemic.

As the second year of the COVID-19 pandemic winds down, worries about how much time kids are spending in front of screens continue to dominate the conversation around media use during the pandemic. Disruption to school and social activities is still pushing a lot of daily life online. But as we do more research and understand exactly how kids have been engaging with media since the pandemic began, we also continue to see just how vital media of all types -- entertainment, social, creative -- has been for our kids to get through a very tough time.

Our latest report from the Common Sense Census -- The Role of Media During the Pandemic: Connection, Creativity, and Learning for Tweens and Teens -- takes a closer look at how tweens and teens have been using entertainment media to keep their connections and their creativity alive when their worlds are so disrupted. This report brings kids' own voices into a discussion that to this point has only included the adults in their lives. Here's what we learned from them about their own media use:

Entertainment media helped tweens and teens cope with the pandemic.

Large majorities said it was important for boosting their moods (84%), staying connected to friends and family (83%), and simply having fun (91%). To stay connected with their friends, tweens and teens reported that they played video games together online, hung out with others on video chat, watched TV shows or movies together online, and attended virtual groups like clubs or classes.

The lifeline provided by entertainment media was even more valuable for Black kids. For example, 58% of Black tweens and teens said media was very important for staying connected with friends, compared to 45% of White tweens and teens. And 56% said it was very important for keeping their moods up during the pandemic, versus 43% of White tweens and teens. Black tweens and teens were also twice as likely as their White peers to participate in online watch parties with friends (34% vs. 17% did so at least once a month) and were more likely to participate in video hangouts with friends (42% vs. 33% at least once a month). Hispanic/Latino tweens and teens fell between White tweens and teens and Black tweens and teens.

Kids proactively turned to media to keep learning and expressing their creativity, even when outside of school.

Tweens and teens used media to learn something they were interested in (78%), to create (53%), or to share something with others (39%). And this online learning and creativity was not related to work they were doing for school. Here as well, Black tweens and teens reported using media more than their White peers. Black tweens and teens were more likely to go online to learn how to do something they were interested in (39% vs. 26% of White tweens and teens), create digital art or music (28% vs. 18%) and share something online that they had created or accomplished (16% vs. 9%).

Boys and girls did not participate in media activities equally.

Overally, 70% of tweens and teens played video games with others to connect, 56% hung out with others on video chat, and 40% watched TV shows or movies together online during the pandemic. But boys and girls showed interest in different types of activities. For example, boys played video games online with friends more often than girls (71% of boys versus 41% of girls said at least once a month), while girls participated in video hangouts with friends more often (40% of girls versus 31% of boys said at least once a month).

Tweens and teens have found some silver linings to the pandemic, but they're also ready to return to a more "normal" media balance.

When asked "what's one thing about your life, if any, that changed for the better during the pandemic," the number-one answer by far was some version of "spending more time with family." And no matter how engaging media has been for kids during this time, it has also reinvigorated their desire and appreciation for connecting in person. Nearly half of the kids in this survey reported they wanted to spend time with friends in person more often than they did before the pandemic, while 33% want to get together "about the same." Only 12% said "less often."

This report reinforces the value of why it's so important to elevate the good stuff in media by highlighting the shows, games, apps, and books that engage, inspire, and represent everyone equally. It also serves as a reminder that when kids turn to media, they need to enter a space that is safe, healthy, and free of hate speech and misinformation.

As parents, caregivers, and educators, we should be careful not to demonize screen use. Media has played a very fundamental role in helping kids get through a long and often lonely time, and in that way, technology and media really matter. But despite how engaging media has been for kids during this time, many are ready for a return to connecting in person, and a more "normal" media balance. In fact, 41% felt they spent too much time on their screens.

As we head into a 2022 that will hopefully see continued recovery from the pandemic and more opportunities to make a safe return to some aspects of pre-pandemic life, it should be reassuring for parents, teachers, and caregivers to see that kids are ready to realign their balance of media to make room for other aspects of a healthy life.

METHODOLOGY: The data in this report is from a nationally representative, probability-based online survey of 1,318 young people (age 8 to 18) in the United States. The survey was conducted from May 7 through June 3, 2021, by Ipsos Public Affairs for Common Sense Media, using Ipsos's KnowledgePanel©. The survey was offered in English or Spanish.

Victoria J. Rideout, VJR Consulting, is the co-author of this report, and contributed to this blog.

Michael Robb

Michael Robb is head of research at Common Sense, overseeing the development and execution of a mission-aligned research program, overseeing multiple research projects on the roles of media and technology in children and families' lives. He has published research on the roles of media and technology in children's lives in a variety of academic journals, and his work has been featured in press outlets such as the New York Times, the Washington Post, and NPR. Michael also has supervised community educational outreach efforts, helping parents and teachers make the most of quality children's programming. Michael received his B.A. from Tufts University, and M.A. and Ph.D. in psychology from UC Riverside.


Michael lives in Connecticut with his wife, two sons, and dog, Charlie. His hobbies include hiking, cycling, racquetball, escape rooms, video games, and binge watching great TV shows. Since having kids, he's now perfecting the art of picking up toys, building obstacle courses with pillows, and napping. He and his wife force their children to listen to showtunes in the car.