Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

UW research captures link between exercise, screen time during the pandemic and kids' mental health

Ryan Johnson for NPR

It isn’t necessarily surprising to find that more physical activity and less time in front of a screen leads to better mental health outcomes.

But the findings of a new study from the University of Washington School of Medicine do provide potential indicators of the pandemic's short-term and long-term effect on children, said Pooja Tandon, an associate professor of pediatrics at UW and the study’s lead author.

“Although children are resilient in many ways, we know that exposure to trauma during childhood — and in many cases, there have been traumatic exposures to children during this time — can have long-term impact for many children,” Tandon said.

The study surveyed 1,000 families nationwide. It asked kids ages 6-17 and their families about emotional symptoms like feelings of anxiety and depression and behavioral symptoms like impulse control.

It found, during the pandemic, kids who engaged in more physical activity reported better mental health, and kids who engaged in more screen time reported worse mental health.

Tandon, who is also a pediatrician at Seattle Children’s Hospital, said capturing data like this is nationally representative evidence of what she is seeing show up in her office.

“I see that as a pediatrician and hear about it as a parent in terms of things like weight gain and just more sedentary time and higher than before numbers of children suffering from different kinds of mental health conditions,” she said.

These types of studies can offer insight into how to help families through this time.

"As we continue in this pandemic and return to some more normalcy, we have an opportunity to rethink how we prioritize equitable access to healthy behaviors for families," said Tandon.

That includes access to parks and safe outdoor spaces, Tandon said, where kids can get outside and play.

Mayowa Aina covers cost-of-living and affordability issues in Western Washington. She focuses on how people do (or don't) make ends meet, impacts on residents' earning potential and proposed solutions for supporting people living at the margins of our community. Get in touch with her by emailing