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by Killian Mullan
16th July 2020

Over the past few months, daily life has changed in ways that no one would have predicted. The lockdown of society, in response to COVID-19, restricted many of us to spending most of the day at home. Paid work ceased abruptly for those furloughed from their jobs, or made redundant, while others continued to work from home often while also taking care of children. Daily life for children has been affected most directly by the closure of schools with the classroom shifted to the home, and any activities taking place outside the home severely curtailed.

As we move tentatively out of lockdown, thoughts naturally shift to whether or to what extent daily life will return to ‘normal’. There is talk of a ‘new normal’, where some of the changes – particularly in relation to paid work – become permanent, and many of us have developed new habits in our lockeddown daily lives that we plan or hope to carry forward. The future for children remains uncertain as schools plan their reopening strategies, and it is difficult to say for sure how youngsters’ daily lives will take shape in the months ahead – whether they will return to ‘normal’ or settle on adjusted habits and routines constituting some ‘new normal’.

It is instructive to look at how children spent time prior to lockdown, and at how this had been changing. It is striking to think now that concerns already abounded about children spending too much time on screen-based activities, at risk of being socially isolated and leading overly sedentary lives indoors. My research shows that the picture is more mixed than is often appreciated, but there has been a marked shift in recent years towards children passing more time at home and away from friends. And this coincides with the time they spend using devices such as smartphones and tablets.

It would be ridiculous to suggest that lockdown merely represented an acceleration of trends already in motion, but at the same time children’s daily lives, and those of their parents, were becoming increasingly orientated around the home in recent years. While no one anticipated lockdown, and while not wishing to minimise the disruption and struggles faced by many families, we were in a basic sense becoming increasingly accustomed to, and effectively prepared for, home-bound lives.

Lockdown has limited children’s engagement in sport and physical activity. The massive popularity of Joe Wicks’s online PE classes highlights a glaring need for children to have opportunities to be physically active. But again, lockdown provides, in extremis, a glimpse of what daily life could be like if certain trends in children’s engagement in physical activities were to continue in the same direction. Over the past several decades, the time children spend playing outside has decreased, and the time they spend walking or cycling has fallen too. Time in sporting activities increased, but not sufficiently to offset decreases in time in other comparatively unstructured physical activities. Children’s ability to engage in organised sporting activities with other children, particularly in indoor facilities, are likely to continue to be constrained due to ongoing measures to contain the spread of COVID-19.

Many of these changes in children’s time use are concentrated or most pronounced on days when they are not at school. The school day has been a firm constant in children’s lives over many decades, and there has been little change over the past 40 years in the amount of screen time, time spent at home and time engaged in physical activities on school days. Children are spending more time doing homework after school today than they were in the 1970s, but this too has remained surprisingly stable since 2000.

School closures have adversely affected children from disadvantaged backgrounds to a greater extent as they lack material resources at home to continue to engage with their education. It is notable that socio-economic differences in the time devoted to homework has narrowed over time on school days, with no difference in recent years, although the equivalent measure on non-school days has widened. The positive influence of schools in helping to mitigate gaps between children from different backgrounds extends beyond the time they are actually in school, particularly on weekdays. The risks to the educational advancement of children, especially disadvantaged children, from not being at school are clear, but we should also acknowledge the role schools play in shaping children’s time use beyond the school gate as a structuring and stabilising force in their daily lives more generally.

Uncertainty associated with the transition out of lockdown is palpable. With uncertainty comes risk, and aversion to perceived risk has long shaped children’s daily lives. Perceived risks to children associated with being outdoors, unsupervised, have arguably led to their spending increased time at home on screen-based activities. This in turn has given rise to risks associated with excessive amounts of screen time, and heightened exposure to risks online. COVID-19 and the ensuing lockdown of our society offers a glimpse of a possible future, where these trends continue unabated, and we face a massive challenge to neutralise or at least minimise a potentially long-lasting negative effect on children. Making this the sole responsibility of parents is grossly unfair.

Trends in children’s time use before COVID-19 highlighted the need to provide children and young people with safe appealing alternatives to their screens, in order to develop a more active lifestyle outside and away from the home. The challenges involved now have an urgency it would have been difficult to foresee, but COVID-19 has also shown how forcefully our society can respond to shared difficulties. The mobilisation of resources, a collective response to risk and a renewed sense of social solidarity and community will be indispensable in taking steps to ensure that children can spend time in ways that promotes their health, development and wellbeing.

Killian Mullan is a lecturer in sociology and policy at Aston University, Birmingham. His work focuses on children and young people’s time use in cross-national and longitudinal perspectives.

A Child’s Day by Killian Mullan is part of the Sociology of Children and Families series and is available on the Bristol University Press website. Order the book here for £60.00, or get the EPUB for £19.99.

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