Study: More screen time, less exercise has negative impact on kids’ mental health

More active children reported fewer mental health difficulties, study finds

A new study has found that more physical activity and less screen time is linked to better health in children and teens.

The pandemic has had a dramatic impact on our children: For many, it reduced the amount of exercise they were getting, and obviously dramatically increased the amount of screen time.

A new study has found that this combination has a negative impact on children and teenagers’ behavior and their mental health.

“Children in our country ages 6 to 17 are getting less than the recommended amount of physical activity on average, and more screen time than what’s recommended,” said Dr. Pooja Tandon, pediatrician and researcher at Seattle Children’s Hospital.

According to Tandon, 60 minutes of physical activity is recommended each day. But during the pandemic, the number of younger kids meeting that mark dropped from about a quarter to one in five kids.

And the drop was even more noticeable in older children: Tandon says less than 15% of teenagers were meeting the recommendation for daily physical activity.

Tandon’s research, which has been published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, found that more physical activity was associated with better mental health.

“Children were who engaging in higher amounts of physical activity in general were reporting less mental health difficulties,” Tandon said.

More: Mental Health Matters: How to spot and help children in crisis

Younger children who were more active reportedly showed less aggressive behavior or problems with impulse control. Older children who were more active were found to have fewer behavior issues and fewer symptoms of depression and anxiety.

“For the older children, even one day per week of getting the recommended physical activity was associated with better mental health, compared to children who were not getting any days of physical activity,” Tandon said.

According to the doctor, parents, schools and communities should be prioritizing boosting children’s activity levels.

“When we’re thinking about priorities and decisions around how we allocate a child’s time, I think the physical activity sometimes gets deprioritized, or it gets lost in ... all the things that we believe or think are important,” Tandon said. “Physical activity is important and we have to prioritize that as we get through the pandemic, and post-pandemic, as well.”

Families should also set rules about limiting screen time, whether it’s limited to certain times of the day, or only allowing it after homework and other activities are complete.

“It’s also important to think about not just screen time in terms of the amount of exposure, but also the content,” Tandon said. “I would highly recommend parents sort of have a pulse on what kinds of screen time their children are engaging in, and thinking about what is age appropriate.”

Tandon says that with the pandemic continuing, it is important to think about how to build resilience among kids, families and communities.

Related: How to teach children to be resilient

And it’s not just kids: A different study found that adults who stopped exercising during the pandemic were twice as likely to have reported symptoms of depression. Researchers say the findings suggest that staying active could help people better cope with pandemic stress.

More: How to keep your kids active amid COVID-19 pandemic

About the Author:

Dr. McGeorge can be seen on Local 4 News helping Metro Detroiters with health concerns when he isn't helping save lives in the emergency room at Henry Ford Hospital.