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Third grader Emilia Cisneros (left), and her sister, Eden, who is in fourth grade, do their schoolwork at home on March 18, 2020 in San Anselmo, California. Both of the schools that the girls attend are closed because of COVID-19. (Photo: Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

Third grader Emilia Cisneros (left), and her sister, Eden, who is in fourth grade, do their schoolwork at home on March 18, 2020 in San Anselmo, California. Both of the schools that the girls attend are closed because of COVID-19. (Photo: Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

Parents Fear Exploitation as Children's Screen Time Skyrockets 500% During Coronavirus Pandemic

"This is not a problem that parents can solve on our own. We need Congress to include online safety measures for our children in the next stimulus package."

Julia Conley

As children across the U.S. connect with their teachers through technology while schools remain shuttered due to the coronavirus pandemic, a new survey shows many parents are deeply concerned about the drastically increased time children are spending online and in front of screens. 

The parent-led national organization ParentsTogether released poll results Thursday showing that nearly half of U.S. children are now spending at least six hours per day online, compared with about 8% before the coronavirus pandemic began spreading across the U.S.—nearly a 500% increase. 

More than a quarter of kids are spending eight or more hours online, while 30% of children are spending at least four hours using the internet. 

"Our families need social media platforms and devices to stay connected right now. We shouldn't have to risk exposing our kids to sexual predators, bullies, unscrupulous advertisers, racist and sexist trolls, and platforms that deliberately addict them."
—Justin Ruben, ParentsTogether

The results of the survey, in which ParentsTogether polled 3,000 parents across the country, give rise to concerns over children's safety online—especially as many children are spending long periods of time using the internet without adult supervision. 

The group spoke to parents whose kids have encountered sexual predation and bullying online, and have used apps and platforms which collect children's data.

"Our families need social media platforms and devices to stay connected right now," said Justin Ruben, co-director of ParentsTogether. "We shouldn't have to risk exposing our kids to sexual predators, bullies, unscrupulous advertisers, racist and sexist trolls, and platforms that deliberately addict them."

More than half of parents said they are concerned their children will become addicted to social media, games, or other on-screen activities as a result of the coronavirus pandemic as their use of screens rapidly skyrockets. 

In addition to educational materials, children are largely spending time online using non-educational sites and apps. More than 78% of parents reported their children are using YouTube frequently. Nearly half said their children use Netflix and more than a third said their kids use TikTok.

The survey results come a week after 33 global groups wrote an open letter raising concerns about the rights of children who are learning remotely for the foreseeable future. 

The "rushed adoption of technology" by schools which had to set up distance learning programs in a matter of days as the pandemic created a global emergency "risks undermining learners' and children's rights at an unprecedented speed and scale," the groups, including the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, wrote. 

With schools relying on many free remote learning products that often exploit students' data or advertise to children, only 14% of parents surveyed by ParentsTogether said they felt the companies behind these products and websites are doing enough to protect young users.

Eighty-five percent of parents said Congress should include protections for children online in legislation addressing the coronavirus crisis, including putting limits on deceptive advertising and expanding the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act, which currently protects only children under the age of 13. 

"This is not a problem that parents can solve on our own," said Ruben. "We need platforms to prioritize kids' safety and Congress to include online safety measures for our children in the next stimulus package."

Earlier this month, Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) introduced a bill to combat the "commercialization" of websites used by children and the "manipulative design" of websites like Netflix and YouTube, aimed at keeping kids online longer. 

"With kids stuck at home and spending more time on screens, this is urgent," Markey said last week.


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