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Angela Donnelly is fighting a battle that is familiar to most parents – trying to cut down the time her kids spend on screens while also trying to make sense of the ways in which screen time has changed these past few years.

“We do have rules. And if we did stick with the rules, I wouldn’t feel so bad,” says Ms. Donnelly, who owns a natural foods store in Toronto. “There are rules, there are stated exceptions to the rules, and there are different kinds of screen time.”

For example, her oldest son, Clayton, 13, is a “major bookworm” who reads all his books on a device. That, Ms. Donnelly says, is an exception to the rules and most certainly a different kind of screen time.

Screen time for children spiked during the pandemic, with everything from school to socializing moving online. A recent study conducted by Canadian researchers and published last month in the journal JAMA Pediatrics found that children’s screen time, defined in the study as any screens used for non-school purposes, remains higher than before, suggesting kids have been acclimatized to more time online. As another sign of an en masse reconsideration, the Canadian Paediatric Society recently updated its screen-time guidelines.

Screen time 101: How much screen time is too much?

Researchers followed a cohort of nearly 1,300 children who are now 13 and 14 years old and found that, at the start of the pandemic, their recreational screen time during the week jumped from an average of 1.77 hours to 3.12 hours a day. While that peak subsided, the study found that after lockdowns ended and in-person learning resumed, weekday screen time still remained higher than prior to the pandemic, with youth in the study spending an average of 2.15 hours a day on screens.

“Whether this has resulted in shifts in how youth are using screens and devices in a more long-term way, that story still needs to be told over time,” says Dr. Nicole Racine, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Ottawa and co-author of the study.

André Plamondon, a researcher at Laval University and co-author of the study points to how so much of our communication and socializing was done via screens during the pandemic, and this may account for the rise.

“It is quite possible that because of this pandemic … they’ve changed in the way that they engage with their friends,” he says.

Considerations around screen time need to be guided by one very important question, Prof. Plamondon says. “It’s not all just about how much time but also, what are they doing with that time?” Not all screen time is equal, and certainly not as equally bad.

The reliance on screens during the pandemic prompted the Canadian Paediatric Society’s update of its guidelines, says Dr. Michelle Ponti, head of the society’s digital health task force.

“For better or for worse, we all needed to be on screens for educating our kids and for work and socializing, making those connections. So the time that we spent on all of our screens just went up exponentially. And it just drives home that it’s more how we use screens, rather than the how much, that makes the biggest difference,” she says.

Under the new guidelines, children zero to two should spend no time on screens, with exceptions for events like the occasional video chat with relatives. The previous hard limit of one hour of screen time a day for kids two to five years old was relaxed to allow for interactive screen time such as educational games or family movie nights.­­­­­

Instead of thinking of strict time limits, parents are better off considering a few guiding principles, Dr. Ponti says.

First, is it educational? Are your kids learning something, or simply wasting time mindlessly scrolling TikTok?

Second, is it social?

“Are [they] connecting with family and friends in a healthy positive way?” Dr. Ponti says.

And finally, is it active?

“Are you using this to get outside and explore nature? Is it a Wii Fit type of scenario, where you’re using the screen because you’re doing exercise? … Or some mindfulness or yoga or something? There’s nothing wrong with that.”

Ultimately, it is passive screen time that serves no purpose other than mindless time-wasting that parents need to cut out as much as possible, Dr. Ponti says.

Mark Li says much of his 10-year-old son’s life went online during the pandemic, from talking to friends to his piano lessons.

“Now we’re trying to cut it down,” says the 40-year-old electrical engineer who lives in Calgary. Mr Li differentiates between good screen time such as chatting with friends or watching a movie together, and bad screen time such as watching silly YouTube videos.

With summer approaching, and weather that lets kids get outside and off screens, parents need to do a reset, Dr. Ponti says. Particularly now that COVID-19 is no longer considered a public-health emergency of international concern.

“It’s kind of like a spring cleaning,” she says.

Ms. Donnelly would like to do a postlockdown reset with her two sons, but worries screens have become too entrenched in their lives.

She looks at all the things there are to do at her house, from the trampoline to board games to bikes and thousands of dollars worth of Lego AS.

“They don’t have the incentive to do those things,” she says. “I think because screens are so easy.”

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