This study among a nationally representative sample found that over 40% of parents of children ages 6 to 17 were interested in receiving information about helping their family be active during the COVID-19 pandemic. Parents who were more likely to be interested in information were those working from home compared to outside the home, living in a big city compared to a suburban area, small town, or rural area, and those whose children were doing school remotely compared to in-person. As with parents, 41.5% of children ages 11–17 were interested in information about being active during the pandemic. Children more likely to be interested in information were those whose parents worked full-time compared to those not working, and those living in a big city compared to a rural area.
Parents of younger children who were attending school remotely were more likely to be interested in information about helping their family be active during COVID-19, compared to those whose children were attending school in-person. Schools typically play an important role in supporting student activity by providing opportunities such as PE, recess, and classroom movement opportunities (27). However, unique challenges arise with remote learning compared to in-person learning, including adapted PE lessons and classroom activity, lack of recess, and disruptions to or cancellation of school-based activities. Therefore, parents with children who are attending school remotely may be taking on a larger responsibility for their child’s daily physical activity behavior during the pandemic and in search of resources to help keep their family active. Additionally, children are likely spending more time sedentary with remote learning, which may further prompt parents to seek additional support for keeping their children active. It is also of note that differences in information needs by school status (remote, in-person, hybrid) were greater among parents of younger children compared to those with older children, which may be due to the lower autonomy and greater parent involvement among younger children. Overall, schools offering remote learning can support families in promoting physical activity by sharing resources and encouraging family-centered physical activity when possible. The Comprehensive School Physical Activity Program (CSPAP), a multi-component approach for schools to support student activity (28), can be utilized to identify opportunities for increasing family activity while children are attending school remotely. Further, strategies for increasing family-engaged activity during the pandemic (e.g., supporting active physical activity classroom movement breaks, access to school playgrounds and fields), can potentially be beneficial for CSPAP-consistent physical activity post-pandemic.
Parents working from home were more likely to be interested in physical activity information compared to parents working outside of the home. As with remote learning, parents who are spending more time at home may be taking on a larger role in their families’ daily activity, need to keep their children occupied while parents work from home, and/or are observing children’s lack of activity more and therefore are more likely to be interested in resources that help facilitate healthy behaviors. Another possibility is that families in which parents are working from home are experiencing more disruptions to organized opportunities for physical activity. For example, areas in which businesses are encouraging employees to work from home may also have more restrictions due to the pandemic including park closures, cancellation of organized sports, and transitions to remote learning. Efforts to address children’s activity levels during the pandemic should capitalize on the overall interest in physical activity-related information among parents, particularly those working from home and who have children attending school virtually.
Children with parents working full-time were more likely to be interested in information about being active during the pandemic compared to those whose parents were not working. One explanation is that if parents are spending a majority of their time working, older children may be interested in identifying ways to stay active, independent of their parents. Physical activity resources are particularly relevant for youth whose usual means for staying active (e.g., school activity, organized sport) have been disrupted due to the pandemic. For parents working full-time pre-pandemic, their children may be more likely to have been enrolled in organized activities – in part as a form of child supervision – while parents worked. With a majority of these activities being canceled in response to the pandemic, these children likely have a greater change in their physical activity levels. It is also of note that the parents and youth with interest in information about staying active during the pandemic did not have these needs met from other sources. While schools, community organizations, and sport and recreation programs are adapting to their new reality in various ways, there are opportunities to meet families’ needs around physical activity.
Parents and children living in big cities were more likely to report interest in information about staying active during COVID-19, compared to those living in small towns or rural areas. A potential explanation may be the varying degree of restrictions and closures that were imposed across the US in response to the pandemic. The authority for imposing COVID-19 restrictions, including sheltering in place orders and school or business closures, rests with states and localities. Thus, when and to what extent COVID-19 restrictions are implemented varies at the local level, with more restrictions often seen among high-population density cities (29). Fewer restrictions and closures of parks, businesses, and schools means less disruption in low-population density areas such as small cities and rural areas, which may account for the lower interest in information among parents and children from these areas. In areas where opportunities for physical activity (parks, schools, etc.) remain accessible to families, there is likely to be less demand for information regarding how to stay active during the pandemic. This is further supported by evidence suggesting that time spent at home since the start of the pandemic has minimally increased for those in rural areas or small towns compared to those in big cities (30), and a larger decrease in physical activity levels among adolescents in urban compared to rural areas (31).
When considering children’s reported barriers to physical activity, interest in information about being active was highest among children who wanted to do online physical activity but did not have the right resources (e.g., laptop, Wi-Fi), children who were worried that they might get COVID-19, and children who reported that it was not safe to go outside near their home to play or be active. Further, within each of these groups, almost or over half of children reported interest across all the different types of information (e.g., how to avoid getting COVID-19 while doing physical activity; online resources for doing physical activity; ideas for physical activity you can do alone, inside, outdoors; etc.). These findings have implications for the type of information that should be provided to children to help them feel confident in their ability to be physically active during the pandemic, such as how to safely participate in physical activity both within and outside their home. It is also important to ensure that resources are developed and delivered equitably, such that information is accessible to youth regardless of their access to information and communication technologies (e.g., digital divide).
Limitations and Strengths
This study was conducted among a large, nationally representative sample of parents and children, which provides external study validity and the ability to examine differences in information needs by sociodemographic variables. This is also the first known study to examine physical activity-related information needs among parents and children during the COVID-19 pandemic. This is an important first step in developing interventions that take families felt needs into account and highlights how differences in information needs should be taken into consideration to efficiently support families’ physical activity engagement during and after the pandemic. The limitations of this study must also be noted. First, these data are self-report and therefore subject to recall bias and social desirability bias. Second, this survey was conducted in Fall 2020 and pandemic-related circumstances may have changed over time, such as the status of schools, sports, and other opportunities for physical activity.