Parents Underestimate How Much Time Teens Spent Online During Pandemic

Parents, think you have a good handle on how much time your teens are spending on social media?

Don’t bet on it. New research suggests your best guesstimate is likely way off.

Parents significantly underestimated their teens’ social media use — especially girls’ — during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, the study showed.

“Although most parents and their teens spent more time together at home during the pandemic, this did not translate to a greater awareness of their child’s screen use,” said the study’s lead author, Dr. Jason Nagata, assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of California, San Francisco.

And screen time matters: Girls who spend a lot of time on social media are at increased risk for problems with body image and mental health, previous studies have found.

While parents overestimated their teens’ total recreational screen time, they underestimated how much of it was spent with social media and multiplayer video games (versus texting, video chats and other uses), according to findings published online Dec. 16 in the journal Academic Pediatrics.

In addition, parents underestimated girls’ social media use more than boys’ social media use, the investigators found.

Previous research has suggested that social media can harm teen girls’ body image and mental health, an issue that was the focus of recent U.S. Senate hearings.

“A negative body image may be a result of exposure to social media and unattainable body ideals,” said study co-author Kyle Ganson. He is an assistant professor of social work at the University of Toronto, in Canada.

“This may lead to disordered eating behaviors and poor mental health,” Ganson said in a university news release.

The study also found that parent/teen differences in estimates of social media use were greater in families of color, among single parents, and in low-income households.

Previous studies have shown recreational screen time doubled among teens during the pandemic, according to Nagata.

“Parents should discuss screen use with their teens and develop a family media use plan,” he said. “Discussions about time spent on screens, as well as types of screen use and content, may promote greater understanding among family members and help prevent adverse consequences.”

More information

The American Academy of Pediatrics explains why it’s important to limit your child’s media use.

SOURCE: University of Toronto, news release, Dec. 17, 2021