What are US parents’ top concerns for kids amid Covid-19? Social media overuse, poor eating, suicide, says poll

According to researchers, 8 of the top 10 issues most commonly rated by all parents as a 'big problem' are frequently associated with changes in lifestyle


                            What are US parents’ top concerns for kids amid Covid-19? Social media overuse, poor eating, suicide, says poll
(Getty Images)

Due to lockdown measures and virtual learning amid the coronavirus pandemic, many children were less physically connected to friends and activities like sports and may have experienced major lifestyle changes from spending more time at home during the quarantine. A new survey now offers a glimpse into parents’ greatest concerns about their children in the US. High on the top 10 list are overuse of social media (72%), cyberbullying (62%), internet safety (62%), unhealthy eating (59%), depression/suicide (54%), lack of physical activity (54%), and stress/anxiety (54%), according to the national poll on children’s health by CS Mott Children’s Hospital at Michigan Medicine.

This suggests that 8 of the top 10 concerns most commonly rated by all parents as a “big problem” are frequently associated with changes in lifestyle and may be related to efforts to control the Covid-19 pandemic, say researchers. The nationally-representative report is based on responses from 2,027 parents with children ages 18 years and below. Nearly half of parents also describe Covid-19, the disease itself, as a “big problem” impacting kids, coming in at number 10. 

“This is an especially challenging time for families, with many children experiencing significant changes in routine that may negatively impact their health and well-being. 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,” emphasizes Dr Gary Freed, Mott poll co-director and Mott pediatrician.

(CS Mott Children’s Hospital national poll on children’s health at Michigan Medicine)

What are the implications?

According to the experts, it is not surprising that the top three issues on parents’ list of concerns are related to screen use. Children are spending more time online because of virtual school or not being able to spend time with friends in person. The authors state it is also important for parents to remember that this can be an important vehicle for them to maintain social and family connections that are so vital for their emotional well-being during these stressful times.

Freed recommends parents should worry less about the amount of time children are using devices and more about how they are using the technology. “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. Technology may be an important vehicle for those connections,” he explains. 

At the same time, the team advises that parents should come up with clear ground rules and boundaries about how and when children can use devices to ensure it is not disrupting sleep habits, replacing healthy habits like physical activity and that children’s privacy is protected. They should also watch for any signs of cyberbullying and other types of online abuse, which also made the top 10 list, add authors.

The investigators have advised parents to watch for any signs of cyberbullying and other types of online abuse (Getty Images)

Some parents reported great concern about children experiencing increased negative emotions such as stress, anxiety, or depression, which may be related to or exacerbated by lifestyle changes caused by the pandemic. Parents may notice changes, such as increased behavioral issues in younger kids or more moodiness or lethargy from older kids and teenagers, cautions the team. They suggest that in such situations, parents should encourage children and teens to talk about their feelings, and find ways to help them cope with the new reality. 

Changes in routine and social isolation from Covid-19 may also affect a child'’s physical health, according to experts. They say that inconsistent sleep habits may particularly increase the potential for unhealthy eating and reducing outside physical activity, all issues parents identified as top health concerns.

The researchers say that families should try to maintain routines, especially keeping regular sleep schedules and helping teenagers resist the temptation to go to bed much later than usual and sleeping in later. They advise parents to look for red flags that children need more help to manage feelings, such as comments about how they might hurt themselves or experiencing dramatic shifts in usual mood, appetite, or sleep. In these cases, families should reach out to pediatricians and consider enlisting the help of therapists or other health professionals, the experts recommend.

Children who have lost family members to Covid-19 may also need special attention and mental health services to help in how to understand and cope with their loss, notes Freed.

Racial and ethnic differences in responses

The authors identified racial and ethnic differences among families when it comes to what worries them about children's health. According to the report, Black parents rate racism as their number one health concern for children and teenagers, with coronavirus occupying the second position. Racism ranks sixth among Hispanic parents, with Covid-19 at number eight. For White parents, racism does not make the top 10 health issues for their children and Covid-19 is also much lower among their concerns.

(CS Mott Children’s Hospital national poll on children’s health at Michigan Medicine)

The team believes that these differences are likely due to African-American and Hispanic communities being disproportionately impacted by Covid-19 in the US. Systemic racism has also been a national focus, as massive demonstrations protesting racial injustice swept the US over recent months. Black parents are also the only group that rates gun injuries and unequal access to healthcare as a top 10 concern. Meanwhile, White parents are the only group to rate lack of physical activity in the top 10. “Families’ backgrounds and experiences likely shape what health concerns they prioritize as most pressing for American children today,” notes Freed.

According to health experts, families should recognize the emotional toll of racism on children and teenagers. The impact of racism may be reflected in physical problems, such as disparities in the rates of diseases among different populations, and also in children’s mental health. Children targeted by racism have higher rates of depression, anxiety, and behavior problems, research shows.

“Although racism directly affects specific populations, its impact on children's health is a societal concern. It’s important for parents to recognize the detrimental consequences of racism for children in our communities,” advises Freed. Finding ways for young people to get involved either through safely participating in protests or supporting groups or causes that aim to fight racism can be valuable, suggests Freed. “Racism can instill a sense of helplessness in both children and teens. When young people are empowered to stand up to racism, it can make a big difference by showing them they can be part of a solution,” he explains.

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