ANN ARBOR, Mich. — For American parents, you may think the constant concern over COVID-19 is their biggest fear when it comes to their child’s health. A new survey finds that’s not actually the case, not even close. Researchers from the University of Michigan say quarantine and lockdowns have parents worrying more about their kids overusing digital devices than contracting coronavirus.
According to a national poll from C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital, a staggering 72 percent of U.S. parents say their biggest health concern in 2020 is that their child is on social media too much. In fact, the top three health concerns for moms and dads are all concerns about their child’s screen time. Worries over cyberbullying and internet safety both finished as a concern for 62 percent of respondents.
Surprisingly, COVID-19 only ranked 10th among 2020 health concerns for parents. Just 48 percent say they’re greatly concerned about the virus infecting their children. Fears finishing above coronavirus in the poll included children developing unhealthy diets in quarantine, lack of physical activity, increased stress, and concerns teens may start drinking or smoking during isolation.
“This is an especially challenging time for families, with many children experiencing significant changes in routine that may negatively impact their health and wellbeing,” says Mott Poll co-director and pediatrician Gary Freed in a university release.
“Parents’ biggest concerns for young people seem to be associated with changes in lifestyle as a result of the pandemic. COVID-19 has turned the world of our children and teens upside down in many ways and this is reflected in how parents rate health issues in 2020.”
Priorities change depending on race
While the overwhelming majority of white and Hispanic parents are focused on the internet’s negative impact on their children, researchers find Black parents have much different priorities. The survey finds the top health concern among Black parents is the impact of racism on their kids (82%). Fears over COVID-19 ranked second for Black parents (73%), with overuse of social media falling to third.
For Hispanic parents, racism comes in as the sixth-highest health concerns for their children and COVID-19 finishes eighth. Neither issue makes the top 10 health concerns for white parents. Study authors suspect the differences are likely due to minority communities seeing greater disparities in medical treatment during the pandemic. They add that experiencing racism can also lead to higher rates of depression and anxiety among children of color.
“Although racism directly affects specific populations, its impact on children’s health is a societal concern,” Freed says. “It’s important for parents to recognize the detrimental consequences of racism for children in our communities.”
The Michigan team says the widespread worry over screen time does not surprise them. While overusing digital devices can have health implications for kids, researchers contend that parents should focus more on what their children do online, not how long they stay plugged in.
“It’s important for children and teens to maintain social and family connections that we know are critical for their emotional well-being, especially during a time when they are feeling stressed or isolated,” Freed explains. “Technology may be an important vehicle for those connections. Parents need to have ongoing conversations with their children and teens to guide them on safe internet practices.”
The study suggests parents set clear rules and limits for their child’s screen time. This can help maintain healthy sleep habits and protect against too much inactivity.
Children’s mental health a major concern in 2020
Researchers add that parents need to be on the lookout for other warning signs their kids are experiencing health issues in quarantine. The extreme lifestyle changes of 2020 are a major trigger for negative emotions like stress, anxiety, and depression.
“Parents may notice changes, such as increased behavioral issues in younger kids or more moodiness or lethargy from older kids and teenagers,” Freed describes.
Study authors recommend that parents try to keep a regular routine during isolation, especially when it comes to a sleep schedule. The team from Mott also says setting a time when the family intentionally “unplugs” and spends time together can be helpful. Parents can use this time to get children more physical activity by getting outside and going for a brisk walk.
Researchers caution that parents still need to watch for red flags which may reveal their child is not coping with quarantine well. Comments about hurting themselves or dramatic shifts in mood or appetite can reveal a problem that parents should contact a health professional about. Freed says mental health services can be especially important for children dealing with the loss of a family member due to COVID-19.