Pandemic’s effect on screen time, physical activity more evident among girls

Sonja Puzic, The Canadian Press

The combination of increased screen time and less physical activity during the early years of the COVID-19 pandemic was more pronounced among girls than boys aged 12 to 17, says a Statistics Canada report.

The report released Wednesday found that, overall, Canadian preteen and teen girls became less active and engaged in more screen time in 2021 compared to 2018.

It noted a similar trend among boys in the same age group, but boys’ level of physical activity largely rebounded in 2021 to pre-pandemic levels, while no rebound was evident for girls.

“The decrease in physical activity and increase in screen time among youth from 2018 to 2021 are a concerning public health situation, given the well-established link between these behaviours and poor physical health, poor psychosocial health and negative academic outcomes,” the report says.

The report is based on data from the Canadian Community Health Survey that asked youth aged 12 to 17 to report their screen time and how much time they spent being active at school, home and for recreation purposes. StatCan then analyzed the trends from January 2018 to February 2022.

StatCan found that from 2018 to 2021, total physical activity dropped by nearly 15 minutes per week among boys and by about 58 minutes per week among girls.

The percentage of boys meeting the physical activity recommendation of 60 minutes per day or more, on average, decreased to just under 40 per cent in the fall of 2020 from 60 per cent in early 2020. It then rose to more than 52 per cent in 2021.

The percentage of girls meeting the physical activity recommendation decreased to nearly 35 per cent in the fall of 2020 from 47 per cent in early 2020, and remained at this lower level in 2021, the report says.

The report also says the proportion of youth who met the screen time recommendation of two hours or less per day fell during the pandemic.

On school days, it dropped to about 29 per cent in 2021 from just over 40 per cent in 2018. On non-school days, that percentage dropped to about 13 in 2021, from just over 21 in 2018.

Like physical activity, the drop was more pronounced among girls.

On school days, the proportion of girls who met the screen time recommendation fell by 14 percentage points compared to nine percentage points for boys. On non-school days, the drop was about 10 percentage points for girls and about six points for boys.

Leigh Vanderloo, the scientific director of ParticipAction, a national organization that promotes physical activity, said she’s not surprised by StatCan’s findings.

Vanderloo said boys and girls are socialized differently from the beginning, with boys encouraged to engage in rambunctious play and girls steered toward more quiet, individual activities.

“So it starts at an early age and we see that this low-activity and high-sedentary behaviour tends to persist as girls age across the lifespan, even in terms of reaching adulthood,” she said in an interview, noting that girls and women face more barriers when it comes to participating in organized sports. She added that the pandemic exacerbated that gap.

A 2022 report from Canadian Women & Sport also found that interest and engagement in sports had dropped off among girls during the pandemic.

“I think among any equity denied or equity deserving groups, outside of just girls, (such as) low-income newcomers, individuals with disabilities, we saw very similar things that those gaps and discrepancies ended up widening,” Vanderloo said.

She said addressing the issue requires “a lot of key players,” including parents, caregivers and educators. Kids must be encouraged not just to participate in structured activities and sports but also unstructured play that will make them enjoy setting aside their electronic devices and moving their bodies, she said.

Vanderloo suggested some simple household rules, such as forbidding screens during meal times and in the kids’ bedrooms. She also said parents and caregivers should talk about the benefits of physical activity without associating it with body weight.

“We want to keep that completely separate,” she said. “We move our bodies because it makes us feel good, it gives us energy, it helps us think better, do better in school. So that’s where I would keep those discussions.”

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