Ever since Socrates complained about the written word ruining memories, people have been wringing their hands over the potential harms of technology. But Socrates never had to worry about what to do with the kids during a pandemic. Parental panic about attention-sapping “screen time” warping child development was swept aside by the necessity of plugging in for school and play as families were forced into quarantine. What’s emerging is a more nuanced debate about how children can navigate new technologies.

1. What happened during the pandemic?

In quarantine, screens became a lifeline to teachers, friends and isolated family members. For a working dad or mom, the choice between taking a business call from a closet while the toddler screams -- or at the table while that same toddler is immersed in “Frozen” -- is no contest. Many parents simply threw in the towel, conceding that efforts to limit screen time were a thing of the past. Even before stay-at-home orders, 8- to 12-year-olds in the U.S. were spending an average of about five hours a day online, with teens clocking about seven and a half hours (excluding for school or homework), according to nonprofit Common Sense Media. Stuck at home, those figures exploded.

2. Is screen time hurting kids?

Well, childhood has clearly been disrupted. Texting, social media and online video consumption has become the way kids stay connected and socialize, at least in wealthy countries. How that might be a bad thing (and a good thing) is fertile ground for researchers trying to catch up with the rapid adoption of new devices and platforms by younger and younger kids. On phones, tablets, consoles and laptops, kids are gaming, chatting on Discord, commenting on live streams on Twitch -- even as they deal with the traditional adolescent stew of school, peer pressure and hormones. They’re figuring it out in front of an audience of hundreds if not thousands of “friends” commenting in real time on what they do, and -- via Snapchat and Instagram -- how they look.

3. What does the research show?

Before the lockdown, the number of hours U.S. children were spending plugged in has been little changed over the last five years. The big trend: Kids are shunning television and flocking to YouTube for online videos, potentially increasing their exposure to disinformation (also known as fake news). Bullying is still a problem. A 2018 study led by Jean Twenge, a psychologist at San Diego State University, found that U.S. teens who spend more time online are less happy than those who pursue other activities. In other research, Twenge posited that social media is contributing to a rise in teen depression. Also notable: Age requirements are rather easy to circumvent, and parental controls are seen as something of an arms race.

4. How much is too much?

That’s hard to say. Some of the research focuses on basic questions, such as whether screen usage can cause worrying eye strain (yes), or interfere with kids’ routines such as getting enough sleep and eating breakfast (of course). Health officials are stressing that non-stop technology use shouldn’t be displacing physical activity, face-to-face interaction and sleep. A paper published in 2019 in the journal Pediatrics suggests kids ages 8-11 who fail to meet Canadian government guidelines for exercise, sleep and a two-hour limit on recreational screen time are more likely to act impulsively and make poorer decisions. Some researchers are searching for the right balance -- what’s sometimes called the “Goldilocks” level of not too little, not too much. A 2017 study published in Psychological Science concluded that the tipping point for computer use was 4 hours and 17 minutes -- even longer on weekends.

5. How did the pandemic change things?

With 70% of the world’s students shut out of physical classrooms -- and only gradually returning -- the pandemic accelerated thinking on where and how else children can learn. But concerns about children’s online privacy and safety were also amplified when it became clear how easy it was for trolls to invade virtual classrooms using Zoom’s suddenly essential teleconferencing software. TikTok, the video app that had become part of daily life for tweens even before the pandemic, set a new quarterly record for app downloads in the first three months of 2020 as kids turned their parents on to its charms.

6. So where is this headed?

The pandemic has re-upped the battle to protect kids online and galvanized many parents and educators to teach them to be smarter consumers and creators of content. While online games such as Fortnite, Minecraft and Roblox -– played by a third of all Americans under the age of 16 -- can help kids learn to code and connect with friends during lockdown, they are also designed to make money. One focus is on so-called loot boxes, paid-for in-game surprises such as tokens, better weapons or faster cars that some countries have outlawed or restricted as a form of gambling. In the end, many parents hope locked-down kids might have learned something about tapping the trove of enriching content on the internet -- or making their own -- while they watched those “Epic Fail” videos for weeks on end. With the former, even Socrates may have been pleased.

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