A new study attempts to quantify what many parents likely already know: dismal activity levels among children and young people have fallen further during the pandemic, while screen time has soared.
ParticipAction’s latest report card on physical activity gives children and youth a “D” for physical activity — down from “D-plus” in the 2020 report card.
At the same time, kids succumbed to more sedentary screen time, earning an “F” in that category, billed as “a significant decrease” from “D-plus” in 2020.
The 15th edition of the newsletter is based on data collected during the COVID-19 pandemic, a time that brought a sudden halt to play dates, sports activities and gym classes for many children.
For the third time in a row, the ParticipAction report card gave children and youth an overall grade of “F,” which takes into account physical activity, screen time and sleep recommendations.
ParticipAction’s scientific director, Dr. Leigh Vanderloo, attributes the pushback largely to the fallout from sweeping infection control measures introduced in the spring of 2020.
But she also points to encouraging signs that many families have discovered a new zeal for outdoor activities during the pandemic, suggesting that if enthusiasm for the outdoors continues as sports and education classes resume physical, the grades could go up again.
“I think it’s going to serve more as a blow,” Vanderloo said of how the data will be visualized alongside past and future bulletins.
“There was this invigoration to spend time outdoors. We saw it with camping sign-ups, park usage – some of them were off the charts, they’ve never seen so many [demand among] people who want to get outside,” she said. “Partly because there weren’t a lot of options, but hopefully that will continue.
The public’s embrace of parks, trails and other outdoor spaces for family entertainment and exercise helped this year’s rating for household support for physical activity remain a C, while active transport improved to a C– and active play improved to a D–, from F .
Greater difficulty may be found in reversing the surge in screen use, Vanderloo said, noting that school closures have forced children to use laptops and computers to continue their education while Physical distancing rules have increased social media and screen entertainment instead of face-to-face friend time.
Add to that the lure of TikTok and new pandemic-era social media stars – not to mention the likelihood that parents have also increased screen time – and the challenge of detaching young people from their devices becomes particularly difficult, Vanderloo said.
Harm reduction strategies probably won’t work now, she suggests, calling the tactic a “finger approach” that emphasizes the harmful effects of screen use.
“I don’t think it’s beneficial,” Vanderloo said, believing people will continue to use screens more than they should.
A more effective strategy might be to involve the whole family in assessing screen use and finding alternative activities to replace that sedentary time, she said.
“We know kids are going to, we know families are going to use screens for entertainment, to stay in touch with loved ones, or even to learn things,” she said.
“So how can we make sure that while we’re using screens, we’re trying to do so in the healthiest and most responsible way possible? Are there discussions? Is it co-watching with the kids? Is it designating screen-free areas within the house, like maybe not at dinner time and not in the bedroom?
Opportunities to be active are not equal
It’s also important to look at the social determinants of health, including income, education and geography to understand how they affect a healthy lifestyle, Vanderloo added.
For the first time, the report card looked at levels of well-being among girls, immigrants, Indigenous people, and LGBTQ and racialized youth, acknowledging that the pandemic has exacerbated health inequalities that previously existed.
It found that increases in time spent outdoors were more likely for children from higher-income families, while car-free streets were generally in areas that had fewer visible minorities, as well as fewer households with children.
That’s partly because racialized children and newcomers to Canada often live in more crowded and disadvantaged neighborhoods, said Dr. Anna Banerji, a pediatrician at the University of Toronto’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health.
“It’s not easy to create that space when you have more population density,” Banerji, who was not involved in the report, told CBC News.
Getting to another part of town where there are open spaces for physical activity is also difficult when people don’t have a car or can’t afford a bike, he said. she declared.
The newsletter is a synthesis of national-level articles and surveys, but data on marginalized groups is lacking, according to the study, underscoring the need for researchers to fill the void.
“If we don’t have a baseline, how can we help support and really identify what their needs are?” said Vanderloo. “If we’re planning to move the needle, we need to know. I think I was surprised at how little we knew.”
Marginalized children and youth already faced barriers to physical activity and recreation before the pandemic, Banerji said, such as the cost of sports equipment.
Programs that waive fees and loan sports equipment are needed to help address this issue, as well as to ensure that communities have public facilities where children and young people can play, she said.