School closures accompanied other actions taken against a little-known virus in March 2020. Having gained experience from COVID-19 itself, as well as observing children spend most of their time indoors, the data is still disturbing two years later.
Children with COVID-19 have proven to have a mild infection, with global data suggesting that the risk of severe infection among children is less than 1 percent, mainly in those with chronic diseases or immunosuppression. Younger children, particularly those under the age of five, are the least affected. The prolonged closures of schools and the lack of outdoor time have spawned a new, unseen type of pandemic, in the form of lifestyle diseases that could have a greater impact on children long-term than the virus itself.
Kids’ lifestyles have changed significantly since phones and iPad screens replaced classrooms. No more early morning starts and dashes to the bus stop. Even the simple joy of dashing up and down staircases is gone: travel time to and from school, sports, group projects, music, elocution, and a host of other activities.
Now, children wake up minutes before online classes, grab their gadgets, and stay seated for most of the day. Children as young as 7 and 12 are living like middle-aged executives, which defies childhood’s innate nature. Additionally, virtual classes offer social media, inane content, and endless videos. For work, for play, and for everything else, children are glued to their devices. Pre-COVID, the average screen time was 2.5 hours.
With this surge comes a corresponding and predictable decline in physical activity. What can a child do at home, without friends or sports facilities? Even more detrimental, research indicates that the number of hours children watch TV correlates strongly with their consumption of advertised goods. This includes sweetened cereals, sweetened beverages, and salty snacks.
Pediatricians are battling a tsunami of childhood obesity. In the last two years, obesity rates have almost tripled. Increases in body mass index (BMI) and body fat percentage have been linked to prolonged screen time. According to another study, screen time increases snacking, which leads to weight gain. Children with increased screen time also suffer from disturbed sleep, which further contributes to their weight gain.
Adding weight alone has cascading effects. Because of stigma and isolation, obese children are more prone to depression, and they eat in response to stress more than their normal-weight peers. Among the future productive population of our country, childhood obesity is a ticking time bomb that can explode at any time into complications like diabetes, hypertension, fatty liver, and metabolic syndrome.
Another consequence of the lockdown is the rise in cases of precocious puberty, especially in girls, due to the increased BMI (body mass index), extended screen exposure, and stress linked to the lockdown. Over the past two years, parents have brought their 6-9-year-old girls with early onset of puberty to pediatric endocrinologists. This number has increased threefold.
Due to prolonged school closures, the majority of children have been indoors for the past two years and we are seeing an alarming number of symptomatic cases of Vitamin D deficiency across all age groups. Symptoms range from convulsions and tetany due to low calcium levels caused by vitamin D deficiency, to severe leg pain, deformities, and the inability to perform simple daily activities such as climbing the stairs or walking for more than half an hour.
During adolescence, bone mineral density in the human body increases by 30 percent. Exercise is essential to this process. As a result of keeping children indoors for so long, their bone strength has also been compromised. Last but not least, the impact on our children’s vision. The incidence of myopia has increased from 16 percent in 2020 to 27 percent in 2021, directly related to the increase in average screen time. Smaller children in the 5-10 year age group are the most affected because they must adopt a screen-based lifestyle so early in their lives. Online stay-at-home schooling is also associated with dry eyes and headaches.
COVID-19’s course is still unknown. It may wane along predicted lines, or it may surprise us once more. However, from what we have seen so far, we find that keeping children indoors in order to protect them from the virus may have far worse consequences than the virus itself.