With the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic and the first lockdown in Israel, came a shutdown of economic activity, and a complete closure of the educational frameworks in the country. As a result, families were forced to spend extended periods at home. The confinement and pressure-cooker atmosphere caused many parents to place their young children in front of the television or other screens – an easy solution with potentially negative consequences for the health and welfare of children like weight-gain, problems with sleeping, and developmental lags.
A new study by the Taub Center examined the frequency of screen use among families with young children during the lockdown and found that as parents experienced more stress – whether as a result of losing their place of employment or the need to juggle work and childcare – their children were exposed to lengthier periods in front of screens. It was also found that the feelings of stress were more common among families from lower socioeconomic backgrounds and among the Arab population, as well as among children of parents without an academic education. However, when controlling for parental education, it was found that Arab children actually spent less time in front of screens.
Researchers and professionals agree that uncontrolled screen time has generally negative effects on the cognitive and emotional development of children, and so it is advised to avoid all screen use by children until the age of two, and to limit their screen time to one hour per day between the ages of two and five. Studies have found that children from weaker socioeconomic backgrounds tend to spend more time in front of screens than those from stronger backgrounds. A new study by the Taub Center conducted by Dr. Yael Navon, Liora Bowers, Dr. Carmel Blank, Dana Vaknin, and Prof. Yossi Shavit looked at the connection between screen use by children ages one to six during the first lockdown in Israel and their parents’ sociodemographic characteristics and emotional state.
The lower your economic status, the more likely it is that your children will have more screen-time and suffer its side effects. COVID-19, as expected, reinforced these patterns
Research has shown that unsupervised screen use by children has negative effects related to weight gain, sleep disorders, and behavioral and emotional problems, and may also harm the cognitive development of young children. Among preschool-age children, watching screens harms, among other processes, language and literacy development.
Young children from low socioeconomic backgrounds spend more time in front of screens than do those from higher socioeconomic backgrounds, and those differences continue throughout childhood. These patterns are related to parenting styles, which are also related to socioeconomic factors: parents who are relatively well-off are likely to be more involved in organizing activities for their children and their supervision, and spend more time on childcare in ways that encourage cognitive development, including reading books and asking questions.
In contrast, parents from lower socioeconomic groups tend to allow their children to develop “naturally” with less intentional intervention and organized activities. In addition, there is a positive relationship between economic pressures and stress, depression, and anxiety, which cause parents to be less involved with their children and have a negative impact on parent-child relationships.
The lockdown and closure of educational frameworks transformed parents into their children’s sole caregivers, with some parents losing their jobs and experiencing financial difficulties, and others attempting to divide their time between childcare and work. In both cases, screens provided an easy and available solution. In the absence of any other type of activity for children during the lockdown, the use of screens again became a lively topic of discussion among health organizations and professionals. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommended focusing less on limiting screen time and more on “mitigating the risk” by supervising the quality of programs watched by children and by co-viewing of appropriate programs.
Were you stressed? If so, it is likely that your children used more screens. Arab children actually watched less.
Taub Center researchers conducted a survey during the first lockdown among 1,300 parents, Jews and Arabs, of children between the ages of one and six. The questionnaire dealt with issues related to the daily routine of parents with young children during this period, including screen use and other activities, with additional questions relating to parents’ sociodemographic characteristics, their employment status, and their emotional state.
In an analysis of the survey results, Taub Center researchers found that the use of screens increased with the age of the child. A significant positive correlation was also found between parental stress and screen use, that is, as parents reported higher levels of stress, their children spent more time using screens. It seems reasonable that parental stress influences parents’ ability to set limits for their children, including the use of screens.
Controlling for background variables, the chance that Arab children ages one to two will watch television is greater than for Jewish children of the same age. In contrast, the likelihood that an Arab child ages three to six watched a great deal of television during the lockdown was actually lower than for a Jewish child of the same age.
“The economic crisis aroused by the COVID lockdown and the subsequent closure of educational frameworks for children harmed young children’s development and, as shown in the study, this increased socioeconomic gaps in Israel, which were already high,” says researcher Dr. Carmel Blank.
“The emotional state of parents apparently influences the use of screens by children,” added researcher Dr. Yael Navon. “Since it is reasonable that parents experience distress during more normal times and not just during COVID times, we can assume that these findings also apply more generally – parental stress harms their emotional availability, which intensifies children’s use of screens and slows their development.”
Prof. Avi Weiss, President of the Taub Center, says: “It is clear to everyone that social gaps in Israel deepened as a result of the COVID crisis. This is seen even among very young children, who, for some, the closing of educational frameworks was particularly significant due to their parents’ difficulties in creating a supportive and suitable environment for them.”
The Taub Center for Social Policy Studies in Israel is an independent, non-partisan socioeconomic research institute. The Center provides decision makers and the public with research and findings on some of the most critical issues facing Israel in the areas of education, health, welfare, labor markets and economic policy in order to impact the decision-making process in Israel and to advance the well-being of all Israelis.