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

kids and screens
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 reports and produces special projects, including podcasts and series, for KNKX. Mayowa started her public radio career at KUOW in Seattle. She's worked at NPR in Washington, D.C. and Alaska Public Media before moving back to her hometown of Tacoma to work at KNKX.
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