During the COVID-19 Pandemic, Children Used Screens More and Played Outside Less

Health-related behaviors among children were negatively affected during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The COVID-19 pandemic likely negatively affected health-related behaviors among children. These findings were published in the European Journal of Public Health.

Investigators from universities in the Netherlands sourced data for this cross-sectional study from 5 samples collected between 2016-2017, 2017-2018, 2018-2019 (pre-COVID-19), 2020-2021 (mid-COVID-19), and 2021-2022 (post-COVID-19). In each sample, children (N=6351) in grades 3 to 6 in the Netherlands were surveyed about screen time, outdoor play, sports club membership, and commuting to school. The changes in health-related behaviors were evaluated prior to, during, and after the COVID-19 pandemic.

The overall study population was aged mean 10.14 (SD, 1.3) years and 50.8% were girls.

In the pooled sample, children reported a daily screen time of more than 30 minutes (13.3%), 30 minutes to 1 hour (28.2%), 1 to 2 hours (21.8%), 2 to 3 hours (15.8%), and less than 3 hours (20.9%) hours; 3.8% never played outdoors, 6.9% played outside 1 day per week, 22.2% 2 to 3 days, 33.9% 4 to 6 days, and 33.3% 7 days per week; 72.1% were members of a sports club, and 85.1% had active commutes to school.

…[A]lthough children still have higher screen times and are less often member of a sports club than in pre-COVID years, trends seem to be slowly reverting back to pre-COVID levels.

The sample year was a significant predictor for screen time (β, 0.14), outdoor play (β, -0.05), and sports club membership (β, -0.05), in which later samples had more time spent using screens and less time playing outdoors or with membership to sports clubs.

Stratified by specific years, children reported less screen time in 2016-2017, 2017-2018, and 2018-2019 (β range, -0.09 to -0.32) and more in 2020-2021 (β, 0.44) compared with in 2021-2022. Children played more outdoors in 2016-2017 and 2017-2018 (β range, 0.12-0.13) and less in 2020-2021 (β-0.20) compared with 2021-2022, but no difference was observed when compared with 2018-2019 (β, -0.05; 95% CI, -0.07 to 0.02). More children belonged to a sports club in 2016-2017, 2017-2018, and 2018-2019 (β range, 0.09-0.16) and fewer in 2020-2021 (β, -0.28) compared with 2021-2022.

The predictors for trends in screen time included gender (β, 0.34), age (β, 0.20), and active commuting (β, -0.10); for outdoor play predictors included age (β, -0.05) and active commuting (β, -0.10); and for sports club membership predictors included gender (β, 0.24) and active commuting (β, 0.10).

These findings may have been limited by evaluating days played outdoors, which did not indicate an amount of time or intensity of play.

Study authors concluded, “Our study reveals negative trends in children’s health-related behaviors, with children these days spending more time on screen-based activities, spending less time playing outdoors and being less often member of a sports club. These negative trends seem to have peaked during COVID-19. Fortunately, although children still have higher screen times and are less often member of a sports club than in pre-COVID years, trends seem to be slowly reverting back to pre-COVID levels.”

This article originally appeared on Psychiatry Advisor


de Bruijn AGM, te Wierike SCM, Mombarg R. Trends in and relations between children’s health-related behaviors pre-, mid- and post-Covid. Eur J Public Health. 2023;ckad007. doi:10.1093/eurpub/ckad007