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Jody McKenzie and Doug Grozelle walk alongside their daughter Mackenzie, 6, as she rides her bicycle near their home in Binbrook, Ont., on Oct. 27, 2020.

Tijana Martin/The Globe and Mail

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Jody Mckenzie was careful not to give her six-year-old daughter much screen time early in the pandemic. She would do her school work online and that would be about it. But when summer came, the rules got a little too relaxed. Soon she was watching hours of TikTok videos, often in the dark.

“We totally dropped the ball,” says Ms. Mckenzie, who lives in Hamilton.

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Eventually, she noticed something was off about her daughter’s eyes. She asked her husband if he had noticed it too.

“He was like, ‘Oh my gosh, she looked at me the other day and it was like one was going left and one was going right. She looks like the Cookie Monster,’ ” Ms. Mckenzie says.

Parents struggle to wean children off ‘perfect storm’ of screen time during pandemic

How to start weaning your kids off screens

At the eye doctor, Ms. Mckenzie’s suspicions were confirmed: The changes she and her husband had noticed were most certainly related to her daughter’s screen time. The doctor said watching screens in the dark had caused her to develop a lazy eye.

Experts told parents this past spring not to fret about allowing their children more screen time than usual. We all had to do what we had to do to make it through those early months. But now, seven months in to the pandemic, experts are sounding the alarm bells.

While not all time spent in front of screens is bad, they say, it’s time to rethink our children’s dependence on technology, especially as we head in to the winter when it will be all too tempting to stay indoors in front of screens.

While not all time spent in front of screens is bad, experts say it’s time to rethink our children’s dependence on technology.

Tijana Martin/The Globe and Mail

This spring, when schools were closed and parents were scrambling, elementary school-age children’s screen time more than doubled, from an average of 2.6 hours to 5.8 hours a day, not including time spent doing schoolwork, according to researchers at the University of Western Ontario.

“Some parents were literally reporting that their children were having 13 hours of screen time a day,” says Emma Duerden, who led the study.

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Although only 104 families in Ontario were surveyed for the study, it points to an unsettling trend, Dr. Deurden says.

School-age children should get no more than two hours of recreational screen time a day, according to the Canadian Paediatric Society.

Dr. Duerden says the short-term effects of this excessive amount of screen time are unlikely to have long-term consequences for brain development.

But, she says, research conducted in the United States has shown that nine- and 10-year-olds who had seven hours of screen time a day for prolonged periods have been shown to have premature thinning of the cerebral cortex, a condition frequently associated with memory loss and other cognitive impairments.

Even if lots of screen time doesn’t lead to long-term effects on children’s brain development, it is likely having short-term effects, Dr. Duerden says.

“Their sleep could be disrupted,” she says. “We know routine disruption can be associated with emotional and behavioral difficulties in children, even in the short term.”

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“Routine disruption” could serve as the tagline for this past spring, although it is a drastic understatement.

Allowing children excessive screen time has become the norm in many households, and that should worry us all, says Mark Tremblay, director of healthy active living and obesity research at the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario.

“That’s the stuff that gets concerning to me, is when we normalize a biologically and sociologically abnormal routine,” Dr. Tremblay says.

As winter approaches, it will be harder to get outdoors and much more appealing to stay inside watching a movie or playing videogames. Parents need to be on guard against defaulting to screen time, he says.

“All of these temptations are associated with an increased risk of all the things we’re afraid of: physical-health problems, mental-health problems, emotional-health problems,” Dr. Tremblay says.

But not all screen time is bad, says Victoria Talwar, a professor in the department of educational and counselling psychology at McGill University.

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“It’s not just about the time. It’s about what you’re doing with that time,” she says.

A child reading a book with her grandparents over Zoom, or connecting with friends over social media are two examples that shouldn’t be considered bad screen time, Dr. Talwar says.

Still, elementary school-age children shouldn’t have more than two hours of screen time that is “pure entertainment” she says. Dr. Talwar advises parents to create “digital curfews” and have shared activities, such as board games, replace screen time. The structure and predictability provided by a digital curfew makes it less likely children will balk at having to get off screens.

Jody Mckenzie decided that the best way to get her daughter off the tablet, as the doctor recommended to fix her eye problem, was to do fun activities. They camped in the living room. They held a luau. They gave Dad a full makeover.

“Given the choice, she doesn’t choose the tablet over experiences,” Ms. Mckenzie says.

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