Dec. 18, 2020

Parents' high anxiety levels linked to less active kids during pandemic

Calgary-based study looks at impact of parents' COVID-19 anxiety on children’s physical activity and screen time
Gavin McCormack and Patricia Doyle-Baker
Gavin McCormack and Patricia Doyle-Baker

Young people whose parents report high anxiety about the COVID-19 pandemic are moving less and spending more time on screens than those with low-anxiety parents, according to a study published in Preventive Medicine Reports.

This work addresses a critical gap in the current evidence around pandemics and physical activity levels, says Dr. Gavin McCormack, PhD, study lead author, a member of the O’Brien Institute for Public Health and lead of the Built Environment and Healthy Living Research Lab at the Cumming School of Medicine (CSM).

“We know that pandemics, including COVID-19, can affect physical activity and sedentary behaviours among children,” says McCormack, pictured above, left. “However, the role that parent anxiety plays in this dynamic had yet to be explored.”

Between April and June, 2020, UCalgary researchers surveyed 345 parents in north-central Calgary with at least one school-aged child. One-third of parents reported being extremely or very anxious about the COVID-19 pandemic. Parents also reported increases in their children’s sedentary behaviour, and fewer visits to parks and playgrounds since public health measures were put in place to combat COVID-19. 

Children of parents who reported higher anxiety had fewer park visits and higher computer use.

Parents with higher anxiety about the virus may be more likely to follow public health guidelines and ensure their children avoid playgrounds, crowded parks, and gatherings with friends, resulting in fewer opportunities to get out and be physically active, says McCormack.,

“While public health measures to fight COVID-19 are necessary, strategies to counteract their unintended consequences on parent and child health and well-being are needed,” he says.

Keeping kids active during COVID-19

Canadian guidelines recommend children and youth get at least 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous intensity activity daily. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, just one-third of Canadian children were meeting this recommendation.

Now, Calgary parents are reporting an even bigger drop in their kids’ physical activity. Fifty-three per cent of parents surveyed said their children were playing less at the park, with friends, and in public spaces since the beginning of the pandemic.

No more than two hours of screen time are recommended for Canadian children, but sedentary behaviour is increasing during the pandemic. Seventy-four per cent of children spent more than two hours a day watching television. More than 60 per cent reported increased time spent on a computer or gaming, or using screen-based devices.

A reduction in physical activity could have a negative impact on children’s growth and development, says Dr. Patricia Doyle-Baker, DrPH, PhD, study co-author and member of the O’Brien Institute and the Alberta Children's Hospital Research Institute at the CSM.

“My concerns are that prior to COVID-19, we already saw sedentary behaviour — too much screen time for example — negatively impacting physical activity levels in children,” says Doyle-Baker, a professor in the Faculty of Kinesiology at the University of Calgary. “This is further being exacerbated by the pandemic.”

As provincial and local public health agencies move into the next phases of the pandemic response, they need to be mindful of the impact on children, says Doyle-Baker, pictured above, right.  Keeping them in school safely, developing routines at home for physical exercise and finding opportunities to get outside are all important approaches for healthy growth and development in children, she says.

Local recreation centres also have a role to play. Vivo for Healthier Generations — a charitable enterprise and recreation centre in north-central Calgary which partially funded the study, has adapted some of its programs to comply with COVID-19 public health measures.

“Places like Vivo are more than just recreation centres. They are the heart and hub for community in many different ways,” says Kris Kelly-Frere, Vivo senior innovation designer and manager.

Vivo’s Play Project, a free, year-round drop-in play program for kids, serves 18 Calgary neighbourhoods. After initially moving online during the first spring lockdown, they were able to work with local health authorities to develop safety protocols and get the program back into the community.

The neighbourhood play hubs have been a way for children to get outside and stay active in a safe environment, says Kelly-Frere.

“We hear from families that play — outside, messy, adventure-filled, and connected — is a bright spot in the hard times,” he says. 

Gavin McCormack is an associate professor in the Department of Community Health Sciences and a member of the Libin Cardiovascular Institute at the Cumming School of Medicine. 

Funding support for this study was provided by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research and Vivo for Healthier Generations.

Child Health and Wellness
The University of Calgary is driving science and innovation to transform the health and well-being of children and families. Led by the Alberta Children’s Hospital Research Institute, top scientists across the campus are partnering with Alberta Health Services, the Alberta Children’s Hospital Foundation, and our community to create a better future for children through research.