Study suggests lockdown could have permanently altered families’ tech habits

At the height of school closures, kids spent an average of nine hours a day online

Lockdown may have permanently changed families’ tech habits, according to new research from NortonLifeLock.

The Pandemic Parenting research report is based off a digital survey of 5,000 parents aged 18+ years old – including 1,000 in the UK – with children of participants falling within the 3–17 age bracket.

According to the study, three-quarters of British parents report that their children’s screen time climbed to an average of nine hours per day at the height of lockdown – nearly double the screen time average prior to the outbreak. This is the highest number out of all five countries surveyed, which also included France, Germany, Italy and Netherlands.

The time British children spent online during this year’s school closures amounts to more than half their waking hours, or longer than a traditional school day – including breaks. More than half (58%) of UK parents are worried that, as a result, their child(ren) might become addicted to the screen.

Professor Robert Winston, medical doctor, scientist, professor and presenter of the BBC documentary Child of Our Time, said: “We don’t fully understand the consequences of these factors for children’s development, education or safety. But clearly, the more unsupervised times spent on devices, the greater the risk of online harms.

“Parents are understandably worried about their kids being exposed to online harms, such as bullying, grooming and false information at such an impressionable stage of their development.”

NortonLifeLock asked parents to compare their children’s use of technology at the peak of lockdown compared with their average use. Before lockdown, UK children spent around a quarter of their day online, spending about five hours on average using an internet-connected device. Even before the pandemic, British kids were clocking up more hours online than their European counterparts, but their screen time also increased the most over all other countries surveyed. While the lockdown has spurred a considerable rise in tech use for many, internet activity has grown for three in four children in the UK.

Sixty percent of British children saw their usage surge for a range of activities – including increased use of smartphones (59%), laptops and PCs (61%) and tablets (57%).

But that’s not all; parents’ time on screen has also hit new levels, with three-quarters (82%) saying they spent more time on internet-enabled devices once lockdown restrictions were introduced. Three in 10 (37%) also reported having their child call them out for spending too much time online, while two in five (44%) say they are concerned about setting a bad example. Not only this, but more than a quarter (31%) say they have been parent-shamed by other mums and dads for the time they spend online, with the same number claiming they’ve been shamed over their children’s screen time.

“Parents have been put in an impossible position,” explained Professor Winston. “It’s down to them to set an example; yet many have had to work from home on a computer or smartphone all day – whilst using tech as digital day care. Children will inevitably imitate their parents. As such, parents must spend time talking to their kids about online risks and developing kids’ social skills – especially after such a long time away from school.

“The challenge of balancing children’s screen time is not going away any time soon, but it’s certainly a more nuanced debate than a couple of years ago” – Professor Robert Winston

“Tech has been a lifeline for many during the pandemic – from contacting friends and family when we were under the tightest restrictions, to keeping up with work and school,” commented Steve Wilson, UK & Ireland Director at NortonLifeLock. “The challenge of balancing children’s screen time is not going away any time soon, but it’s certainly a more nuanced debate than a couple of years ago. Whatever your stance – it’s critical that kids spend their time online safely and know who to turn to if they see or hear something that makes them feel uncomfortable.”

Parental control and child safety

The study also revealed that parents struggled to maintain control as the world moved online this year, with two in five (45%) citing worries over their ability to monitor their child’s online activity. Half (51%) of UK parents admit that they’re not always aware of what their child is doing online, while two-thirds (73%) had concerns over exposure to online risks.

Parents’ top concerns were: their child being approached or groomed by strangers (51%); cyberbullying (46%); and children revealing their location (47%).

Acknowledging the threats of the online world, many parents established rules but not all were able to stick to them. Eight in 10 (79%) of respondents set rules for their child’s tech use in lockdown, while over a third (41%) said they introduced new rules as the pandemic evolved. Generally, the rules parents set during lockdown were harsher than normal; 39% of parents, for example, were stricter on the content and websites their children were able to access. Thirty-eight percent of respondents set rules around when devices could be used, while 33% of parents set rules regarding where they could be used.

However, half (49%) of respondents admitted to making up the rules as they went along, with one in 10 (7%) parents saying they gave up on the rules entirely.

Despite this, 48% of UK parents say they caught their child bending the rules; with three in 10 (38%) catching their child using a device in bed when they should have been asleep, and three in 10 (30%) catching them sneaking a device into their room where they could use it unsupervised.

Some parents reported serious consequences of their child’s tech use during lockdown, including:

  • An issue arising from their child’s online behaviour (74%)
  • Children reading fake news or information (33%)
  • Children viewing content they shouldn’t have (24%)
  • Children purchasing something without permission (21%)
  • Social media bullying (18%)
  • Downloading a virus (18%)
  • Accounts being hacked (16%)
  • Children sharing family credit cards or bank details on the internet (14%)

The tide of change

But it’s not all doom and gloom; according to the survey, more than half of UK parents (59%) said they have had more conversations with their child regarding online safety as a result of the lockdown, while a similar number (54%) said their child had been exposed to more information surrounding online safety.

On top of this, more than half (63%) said their child has become more independent following the school closures, while six in 10 (64%) are now more confident their child knows how to keep themselves safe on the internet – the highest of all five countries surveyed (Netherlands: 58%, Italy: 57%, Germany: 54% , France: 51%). Three-quarters (75%) also believed their child would now come to them for help if they encountered an issue online.

With one in three (39%) respondents saying they are now less concerned about their child’s screen time and two in five (47%) feeling less guilty about it, it seems that the tech revolution could spark a long-term change. A third (41%) of parents say their child’s lockdown tech habits have not changed back to pre-lockdown levels as things return to normal, and one in three (35%) say their family’s tech habits might have changed for good.

“It’s clear that technology is playing, and will continue to play, an ever-larger role in families’ lives – particularly when it comes to education,” said Professor Winston. “Exploration is an essential part of learning. So, we need safeguards in place to protect children as they spend more and more time online, at school and at home.

“All technology has its upsides and downsides. We must recognise the powerful social and educational benefits it brings. It will prove more valuable to us the more effectively we use it – and the more we can deploy it to mitigate the risks that come with.”

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