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ParticipAction gives kids and youth a D for activity, F for screen time

TORONTO — A new study attempts to quantify what many parents likely already know: dismal activity levels for kids and youth fell even further during the pandemic, while screen use soared.
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A family cycles along Lake Okanagan in Kelowna, B.C., Wednesday, Aug. 31, 2022.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh

TORONTO — A new study attempts to quantify what many parents likely already know: dismal activity levels for kids and youth fell even further during the pandemic, while screen use soared.

ParticipAction’s latest report card on physical activity gives children and youth a D for overall physical activity, with only about 28 per cent getting the recommended 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity per day. That's down from D+ in 2020’s report card.

At the same time, kids succumbed to more screen time resulting in an F for sedentary behaviour, with just 18 per cent of children and youth meeting the recommended daily cap of two hours of recreational screen time. The grade is billed as “a significant decrease” from the D+ in 2020. 

Before that, grades had steadily climbed from 2010's F grade for physical activity and 2016's F for sedentary behaviour.

The report’s 15th edition is based on data collected during the COVID-19 pandemic, when play dates, sports activities and gym classes ground to a sudden halt for many kids.

For the third time in a row, the overall grade is an F, which takes into account physical activity, screen time and sleep recommendations.

ParticipAction’s scientific director, Dr. Leigh Vanderloo, largely pegs the backslide to fallout from the sweeping infectious control measures introduced in spring 2020.

But she also points to encouraging signs that many families discovered a fresh zeal for outdoor activities during the pandemic, suggesting that if outdoor enthusiasm continues while sports and physical education classes resume, grades could rise again.

“I do think this is going to serve as more of a blip,” Vanderloo says of how the data will be viewed alongside past and future report cards.

“There was this reinvigoration for spending time outdoors. We saw it with campsite registrations – park use, some of them were off the charts, they've never seen so much (demand among) people wanting to get outdoors. Partly because there weren't a lot of options, but still, hopefully that'll continue.”

Greater difficulty may be found in reversing the spike in screen use, says Vanderloo, noting that school lockdowns forced kids onto laptops and computers to continue their education while social distancing rules drove up social media and screen-based entertainment in lieu of face-to-face friend time.

Add in the draw of TikTok and new, pandemic-era social media stars — not to mention the likelihood that parents, too, have increased screen time — and the challenge of untethering youth from their devices becomes especially tough, says Vanderloo.

Harm reduction strategies likely won't work now, she suggests, referring to the tactic as a “finger-wagging approach” that stresses the detrimental effects of screen use.

“I don't think that's beneficial,” says Vanderloo, believing people will continue to use screens more than they should.

A more effective strategy might be to enlist the entire family in assessing screen use and finding alternate activities to displace that sedentary time, she says.

“We know children are going to do it, we know that families are going to utilize screens as … entertainment, to stay connected with loved ones or even to learn things,” she says.

“So how can we ensure that while we are using screens we're trying to do it as healthily and responsibly as possible? Is it having discussions? Is it co-viewing with the children? Is it designating screen-free zones within the house, like maybe not at dinnertime and not in the bedroom?”

Also important is to examine social determinants of health including income, education and geography to understand how they affect a healthy lifestyle, adds Vanderloo.

For the first time, the report card examined wellness levels among girls, immigrants, Indigenous Peoples and LGBTQ and racialized youth, recognizing that the pandemic exacerbated previously existing health inequities.

It found increases in outdoor time were more likely for children in higher-income families, while car-free streets were generally found in areas that had fewer visible minority populations, as well as fewer households with children.

The report card is a synthesis of papers and national-level surveys but data on marginalized groups is lacking, found the study, which stresses the need for researchers to fill the gap.

"If we don't have a baseline, how do we help support and really identify what their needs are?” says Vanderloo.

“If we're planning to shift the needle, we need to know. I think I was taken aback just by how little we knew." 

The report did find bright spots: the public's embrace of parks, trails and other outdoor spaces for family entertainment and exercise allowed this year’s grade for household support for physical activity to remain a C, while active transportation increased to a C- and active play improved to a D-, from F.

Vanderloo says the adult report card is expected in 2023.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 4, 2022.

Cassandra Szklarski, The Canadian Press

Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version stated this is the third year in a row that the overall grade has been an "F." In fact, the report cards are not issued annually and this is the third report card in a row to issue an "F."

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