Student Well-Being

Too Little Exercise, Too Much Screen Time Makes Summer Weighty for Children

By Kathryn Baron — April 27, 2015 3 min read
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Summers are becoming bad for children’s health as sandlot baseball, bike riding, and general running around with friends gives way to hours of screen time and the snacking that goes with it, according to a new survey of parents.

The joint survey by the YMCA of the USA and the American Academy of Pediatrics’ Institute for Healthy Childhood Weight found that even though most parents say it’s important for their children to eat healthy food, exercise, and limit their computer and TV time, more than 70 percent don’t know the national standards for what should go on their kids’ plates and how much physical activity is recommended.

“There’s a difference between having awareness of a problem and having awareness of the solution,” Dr. Matt Longjohn, the National Health Officer of the YMCA, told Education Week.

The online survey sampled nearly 1,200 randomly selected parents with children ages 5 to 12, and was weighted for gender, age, ethnicity, race, and region.

Dr. Longjohn said what “jumped off the page” for him was the gap between how much exercise African-American and Latino parents want their children to get and the amount of time they actually spend participating in physical activity.

An overwhelming 91 percent reported that the availability of physical fitness programs was very or extremely important in selecting organized summer activities for their children, compared to 86 percent of white parents. But, as the following graphic from the survey shows, only 35 percent of black and Latino parents, compared to 54 percent of white parents, said their children participated in sports, exercise or other types of physical activity for an hour or more a day—the standard used by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

As we reported last year, recent studies have shown that exercise doesn’t just improve physical fitness, it also boosts brain function, especially memory, multitasking, and the ability to concentrate.

The survey found a similar disparity in parents’ attitudes and knowledge when it comes to the American Academy of Pediatrics’ recommended amount of screen time and healthy foods.

Even though 65 percent of all parents know that children should be limited to two hours a day or less playing video games, watching TV, and sitting in front of the computer, almost the same amount—64 percent—said their children spend three or more hours a day on those activities during the summer.

While nearly three-quarters of parents rated access to healthy meals and snacks as top factors in choosing summer programs, half acknowledged that their children drink sugar-sweetened soda and juice at least twice a week.

Although the CDC reports that obesity rates are declining among children aged 2 to 5 years old, overall rates haven’t changed much in over a decade. As Education Week reported last month, about 17 percent of children and teens—12.7 million—are considered obese.

“We know parents want to do everything they can to prepare their kids for the next school year,” said Dr. Sandra G. Hassink, the president of the American Academy of Pediatrics, in a written statement. “Our job is to help families recognize they have the power to keep their kids healthy and ready to learn by keeping them focused, encouraging them to eat healthy, exercise and trading their tablets for books.”

But it’s not that easy, especially for low-income families in the survey, who rated cost as the biggest barrier to providing their kids with healthier foods and enrolling them in extracurricular activities. They also cited a lack of opportunities for physical activity in their neighborhoods and too much access to unhealthy food and snacks.

“In particular, families with household incomes of $50,000 or less are more likely to have a family member assigned to be at home to care for kids during the summer,” said Dr. Longjohn. While they believe that’s best for their kids, he added, they “aren’t aware of the data that family caregivers do less well than summer programs.”

He said the YMCA doesn’t turn anybody away if they can’t pay and is now using GIS mapping to determine which neighborhoods have the greatest need for their programs.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Time and Learning blog.