Gigs, Geeks and God Conference

Many parents who set screen limits for their children tossed their rules out the window after months of pandemic lockdowns wore down their resolve. Since April, children and adults increased their usage of technology. Usage has also increased in schools, churches and universities.

In a report from Ann and Robert H Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago, 60 percent of parents reported their teens are using social media more often during the pandemic. And 80 percent said they have relaxed their rules around social media use.

Balancing family time and technology use is challenging, and too much of it causes high stress, especially among college students.

Dave Baudry, associate director of child and youth ministry at St. John Vianney Parish, and Ben Rogalla, former youth minister, led a workshop Jan. 14 at the Gigs, Geeks and God Conference on using technology with teens and family in our current world where “virtual reality has become more of a reality than ever before.”

According to Pew Research, 71 percent of parents are concerned their kids spend too much time online. There are substantial age differences in the types of devices parents report their child engaging with. Nearly three-fourths of parents with children aged 9-11 say their child uses a desktop or laptop computer, compared with 54 percent whose child is aged 5-8 and 16 percent of those with a child younger than 5.

The use of gaming devices follows similar patterns and is a big challenge, explained Baudry.

“We have schools giving out Chromebooks now, and more children are watching TV and using smartphones since the pandemic began,” he said. “The overall use of the Internet has gone up, as well.”

“There are mental health concerns with the amount of isolation, and additional amount of gaming going on among all ages,” Rogalla said. “Before COVID, teens were pretty happy most of the time with the normal balance of anxiety, stress and school. They were looking forward to hearing from colleges and planning their future, but after COVID, it changed everyone.”

After nearly a year of dealing with the virus, students were interviewed regarding their mental health state and most felt sad, frustrated and worried about their future and ability to spend time with friends.

One teen male in a video interview worried constantly about being sick, concerned that he was a carrier of the virus, and felt isolated and alone with his thoughts. Others dealt with depression, anxiety and gender dysphoria and felt unable to talk about their problems with anyone.

More than half of parents surveyed said the increase in social media usage is having a negative impact on their children.

Baudry explained that some students feel inferior to others as they are getting their social interaction primarily from Facebook, Instagram, TikTok or Snapchat and gauging their lives on their perception of others.

Additionally, a UW-Madison research study on teen screen time revealed other issues, such as misinformation due to social media and pressure to do something special, learn a new skill or get into shape. The pressure left some teens feeling inadequate and stressed.

A suggestion for combating the negative aspects of isolation is for parents to continue to limit the use of technology and devote more time for family activities.

“Children are seeing examples from their parents and learn how to act by what they see their parents doing. If children see their parents using their phones or computers all the time, then that’s what they will be doing as well,” said Baudry. “Keeping lines of communication open is important. Teens might be going through difficult things — I need to keep the conversation going. It’s important to make sure they have someone to talk to and the space to do it.”

Some tips for managing screen time during COVID and beyond include:

  1. Take a deeper look at what children are doing and why
  2. Set a good example by limiting parental screen time
  3. Keep talking
  4. Seek to understand how your child feels
  5. Become a student and ask your son or daughter to teach you something about social media
  6. Maintain healthy routines
  7. Get help if your child is suffering from mental health issues

Children and teens who are into gaming may identify with their avatar as part of themselves and have trouble discerning real and play.

“The games can be positive, but also have a negative side,” explained Rogalla. “Cutting down screen time to two hours a day is important, as well as finding apps or traditional games to play as a family.”

Dave Baudry

Ben Rogalla