Family Internet Use Post-Pandemic: A Survey

Morgan Stanley launched its Alliance for Children’s Mental Health (Alliance) in early 2020, leveraging the expertise of leading nonprofits, including the Child Mind Institute, and Morgan Stanley’s resources and reach to address the urgent and far-reaching challenges of stress, anxiety and depression children and young adults. The COVID-19 pandemic hit shortly after, leading to a significant increase in the number of young people struggling with mental illness. The pandemic also led to a surge in internet use, as children were forced to go to school virtually and connect with friends online who they could no longer see in person.

How has this continued increase in screen time impacted children and families, and how do parents feel about the changes? To find out, Morgan Stanley sponsored a study by Alliance partner Child Mind Institute. The results showed that while there are certainly concerns among parents, there are also perceived benefits of spending more time online, including greater connection with family.

The first data point uncovered wasn’t surprising: Screen time is a big part of our daily lives. A quarter (26%) of the parents surveyed say they use the internet six or more hours a day. That number jumps to 37% when asked about their children’s habits. And 59% of parents responded that they have become more permissive about internet use during the pandemic.

That’s not to say they don’t have concerns. According to survey results, the vast majority of parents are aware of the risks associated with internet use. Three-quarters (77%) of respondents agreed children can be addicted to the internet, and more than twice as many parents (22%) are only concerned about their children and internet addiction as they are about drug addiction (10%). A third (34%) are equally concerned about internet addiction and drug addiction.

In addition to the potential of internet addiction, the survey found the following:

  • 53% of parents are concerned about online bullying
  • 67% of parents are concerned about the content available to their children online; and
  • 32% of parents often feel distracted by the internet when spending time with their children

About half of the parents surveyed also expressed concern about the impact of internet use on cognitive, social, and emotional development. However, the majority of parents believe their children can use the internet responsibly (73%) and feel comfortable talking to their children about internet use (82%).

In fact, the survey shows that overall parental attitudes tend to be optimistic about the impact of increased screen time on their families. Almost half (46%) of parents said the internet increases connectedness within their own nuclear family, while 22% of parents disagreed. An even larger group (56%) reported that the internet increases their bond with their extended families. When asked how the internet positively impacts connectedness, most parents said it helped them share positive experiences and be more flexible in their ability to plan time together.

However, the study also confirms previous research by the Child Mind Institute on increased screen time during the pandemic and its impact on children: The behaviors set by parents may play a role in problematic internet use (PIU) patterns in children. In particular, PIU patterns in parents were significantly associated with PIU patterns in their children. Additionally, researchers found that negative parenting practices such as inconsistent discipline and poor supervision are particularly correlated with PIU in children; and that poor co-parenting (such as high levels of conflict or distrust between co-parents) is associated with a higher level of PIU in parents and children and a lower one Parental concern about the effects of internet use. Surprisingly, the effect of parental PIU on their children’s Internet behavior was significant even among parents who did not report negative parenting practices. Taken together, these results suggest that a simple and potentially effective way to prevent PIU in children is for parents to look at their own internet behavior.

This poll shows that the average American family generally doesn’t feel like they’re having an internet crisis — but many parents have real concerns. It’s important for parents to feel confident talking to their children about the Internet, and the survey suggests several strategies they can use to encourage healthy use. Among them:

  • Address concerns about internet addiction: Be open with children about your concerns and what the data shows. PIU is associated with many negative effects. Clear parental expectations are necessary to guide the child’s behavior and avoid these consequences.
  • Be honest about your own internet usage: Trying to hide your screen time from your kids can encourage them to do the same. It’s also important to model healthy habits – while showing how to avoid less healthy habits. In fact, this is behavior that you can control and that has the potential to have a significant impact on your child’s internet use.
  • Family ties in the foreground: Responsible use of the internet can have tremendous benefits when it comes to bringing family—including extended family—together. As long as there are sensible rules in place, the internet can be a great way for kids to engage and connect in positive ways.

Morgan Stanley is committed to addressing the child mental health crisis through its Alliance for Children’s Mental Health. By supporting the work of the Alliance’s nonprofit partners, including research critical to identifying and directing solutions to the challenges of anxiety, depression and stress in young people, the Alliance seeks to develop innovative approaches that make an impact achieve and bring about systemic change.

About the poll

Conducted by research firm Ipsos, the survey reached a nationally representative population of 1,005 U.S. parents with children ages 9 to 15 and was conducted on July 21St until 17.08th, 2022. It surveyed parents about their attitudes towards internet use, family usage patterns, and potential risks that may contribute to problem internet use (PIU) in children, defined as internet use habits that negatively impact their quality of life. Collaborators include Child Mind Institute researchers Michel P. Milham, MD, PhD, and Giovanni Salum, MD, PhD; and Kathleen Ries Merikangas, PhD, and Kevin Conway, PhD, from the National Institute on Mental Health (NIMH). (Drs. Conway and Merikangas were funded by the National Institutes of Health Intramural Research Program. This work reflects the opinion of the NIMH.)

The survey is the latest work from the Child Mind Institute, which examines the internet and the related impact of a pandemic on families, and is supported by Morgan Stanley. Previous research includes the Coronavirus Health and Impact Survey (CRISIS), a study by the PIU using the Child Mind Institute’s Healthy Brain Network, and recommendations on screen time by researchers at the Child Mind Institute.