Teenagers experienced steep declines in their physical activity levels and high increases in their daily screen time as a result of the pandemic, according to a new report from Statistics Canada. And while boys have almost completely recovered, the problem persists for girls.

“We’ve actually fostered and encouraged a habit that we didn’t really want to do at the time, but it was just sort of survival through the crisis,” says Rachel Colley, a senior research analyst at Statistics Canada and lead author of the study. “What do we do now? How do we come back out of that?”

It’s no surprise physical activity levels dropped at the start of COVID-19. Many organized sports programs were cancelled for long periods, and physical distancing requirements made it difficult for kids to be active together. Stuck indoors, many teenagers relied more than ever on their phones and other electronic devices as a way to socialize and otherwise be entertained. Parents no doubt hoped things would return to the way they were once restrictions lifted.

“With these results, in collaboration with a whole bunch of other studies that are coming out showing similar findings, we have to be particularly concerned now with teenage girls,” Dr. Colley says.

The report looked at data collected in 2018, 2021 and early 2022 from the Canadian Community Health Survey, which asked Canadians aged 12 to 17 to report time spent being physically active as well as time spent on screens.

The number of young people who met the screen time recommendation of less than two hours a day dropped to 29.1 per cent in 2021, from 40.7 per cent in 2018, the report found.

Among boys, 41.6 of them met the recommendation on school days in 2018, but that number plummeted to 20.5 per cent in early 2021, before climbing up to 25.1 per cent in early 2022.

Meanwhile, the 45 per cent of girls who met the recommendation on school days in 2018 dropped to 23.3 per cent in early 2021 and reached 34.8 per cent in early 2022.

Screen time on nonschool days followed a similar trajectory for both groups.

Much greater discrepancies were found between boys and girls when it came to how the pandemic appears to have affected physical activity levels.

Boys spent an average of 75.2 minutes a day being physically active in early 2018. That number dropped to a low of 56 minutes in early 2021 but then returned to 75.2 by the start of 2022.

Girls, however, spent an average of 65.6 minutes a day being physically active at the start of 2018 before that number was cut to a low of 43.3 minutes in early 2021. It climbed to 58.9 by the beginning of 2022.

The findings suggest that more needs to be done to get girls physically active, Dr. Colley says.

“Even before the pandemic boys were more active than girls. Girls have always been a group where we’ve needed to engage more and try to figure out ways to get them interested in physical activity.”

Emma Duerden, an assistant professor with the faculty of education at Western University, says the report highlights how boys and girls have experienced the effects of the pandemic differently.

“It really highlights that the Canadian girls sampled were really a vulnerable group,” she says.

The screen time findings are also consistent with research Prof. Duerden has conducted. She found that school-aged children also used screens much more during COVID-19 restrictions, and that their usage has yet to return to pre-pandemic levels.

Breaking these new habits will require effort, Prof. Duerden says.

“Early screen time use predicts later screen time use. Children who start using screens at an earlier age, they’re more likely to use more screens when they’re as adolescents.”

The Globe and Mail, October 23, 2023