Epidemic’s toll: Less physical activity, more overweight kids, digital addiction

Ljubljana – The latest measurements have revealed the Covid epidemic has severely impaired school children’s physical efficiency, making 10% addicted to digital devices, and increasing the share of overweight kids by 30%. Experts thus propose several measures to address the issue, such as no more school closures and possibly no homework.

“Zoom-assisted distance learning has increased the time kids sit by 63%, while the share of non-active activities rose by 30% and the share of moderate to intensive activity was at a mere 7%,” Gregor Starc, a professor at the Ljubljana Faculty of Sport, told the press on Tuesday.

Kids spent time looking at various screens for more than seven hours a day, he said as he presented the results after two-thirds of the research into physical efficiency of school children has been completed.

He noted that schools in Slovenia had been closed for more than 100 days whereas the WHO had urged governments to close them as the last institutions in the pandemic.

Starc is also very worried that despite the end of the epidemic, the future holds more distance education than before it.

He stressed that schools provided equal opportunities to children regardless of their social status, meaning inequality increased during the epidemic.

Until 2020, the share of overweight school children in Slovenia was dropping 1% a year over the past 10 years.

But now compared to 2019, the share of overweight children rose by 23% at schools which acted upon similar research results from last year when schools re-opened.

The rise in overweight children at schools which did not have the exact data increased by as much as 34%.

The epidemic took the biggest physical efficiency toll on the most physically successful children, pushing them towards those at the bottom.

“The drop in top physically efficient children in 2020 was as much as 31.4%,” said Starc.

This was accompanied by other bad habits, with 10% of the children addicted to video games and 8% to social media, said Martin Korošec, a digital marketing expert.

Too much sitting was moreover coupled with unhealthy diet, a lack of socialising and communication and less time for the family, which all affects the development of brain and increases the risk of digital addiction, he said.

Both Korošeč and Starc urged measures at national level as well as broader to contain the negative effects.

Starc stressed that “foremost, schools must not be closed”, and Korošec added that “screen time must be limited, including for schooling”.

Sport should not be a “burdening school subject”, so the idea is that it should become the first subject without marks where only a child’s progress is monitored.

“Taking Finland and Denmark as a role model, homework should be abolished so that schoolwork does not eat into a child’s spare time,” said Starc.

Another measure to encourage physical activity would be introducing subsidies for sport for children who already have school meals subsidised.

Starc said no new gyms are needed as Slovenia is one of the best in this respect, while children can also spend time outdoors regardless of weather if properly dressed.

However, “in three generations, the radius within which children move outdoors without their parents’ supervision has narrowed from five kilometres to one”.