As the COVID-19 pandemic drags on, we hear daily reports of death and illness as well as social and economic impacts, and the rules and restrictions associated with daily life.

But what few media outlets mention is the toll this is taking on the mental health and anxiety levels of children and young people. Coupled with the disruptions to schooling, social isolation, mask-wearing, home quarantine, and other infection control measures, children and young people are collateral damage, experiencing anxiety at a much greater level than before the pandemic.

Is the media to blame?

While we all like to stay informed about the world around us, research shows that too much media exposure around Covid can have a detrimental effect on children and adolescents. The daily news about the pandemic is more likely to cause anxiety and fear in children than adults, with researchers now saying that the prevalence of anxiety among children and youth has doubled since the pandemic began.

Home isolation has led to an increase in internet use, with its effects on mental health already well documented. Overexposure to the internet, too much gaming, and prolonged screen time result in higher anxiety levels, more depression, insomnia, an inability to deal effectively with stress, and overall lower quality of life.

Screen time and the young brain: When is it too much?

Young brains are constantly growing and forming neural connections as well as pruning those that are no longer needed. Children need a variety of experiences for balanced neural development, and when the virtual world replaces the real one, it’s the equivalent of feeding the body junk food and expecting it to be healthy.

Too much digital time stifles creativity and can interfere with sleep, along with an increase in anxiety levels. Children need to experience boredom at times because this is when imagination and innovation take over.

Teens who stay up gaming late at night are missing out on crucial REM sleep, vital for memory storage and processing of the day’s events. Gaming activates the brain’s reward system, resulting in an addictive rush of “pleasure chemicals” that make the participant feel good. Young brains don’t have the maturity to mentally override this experience, making it hard for a child or young person to say no or stop.

Physical activity is the best option to combat anxiety

Physical activity is the best way of combating Covid anxiety, according to researchers, who studied both overweight and obese children as well as those of healthy body weight. The researchers noticed reduced anxiety levels in both groups that correlated with an increase in physical activity.

Strategies for reducing media exposure

If you believe your child or young person is suffering from increased anxiety levels as a result of too much exposure to the news or the internet, here are some strategies you can try to achieve a better balance.

1. Replace the news with something uplifting

You don’t have to miss out on TV time altogether (although many families who do turn the TV off report more quality family time). Instead, you can find something inspirational or uplifting to watch.

This could be a documentary on something your family/child is interested in, a good news story about someone who’s making a difference in the world, or something that will make you laugh.

2. Set some boundaries around screen time

If you feel that your child or teen is spending too much time gaming or on the internet, it might be time for some boundaries. You will meet resistance, but it’s worth persisting!

Try strategies such as limiting internet use to certain hours a day, or only after doing some physical activity first. You can also make a rule that no devices are allowed in bedrooms or must only be used in an area of the house where you can keep an eye on what your child is doing.

It’s also a good idea to stop internet use at least two hours before bedtime so that young brains have time to adjust to the need for sleep (blue light from screens inhibits the production of melatonin, the sleep hormone).

3. Get active

There’s nothing like some physical activity outdoors to blow away the cobwebs and make you feel good, and it’s no different for kids. Go for a walk, bike ride or swim, or send the kids outside to play in the backyard. Don’t worry if they complain about being bored; boredom is good for their creativity and imagination.

Researchers recommend that adults get 150 minutes of moderately intense exercise per week, and children should have at least 105 minutes per week as long as they are spending time in active play.

4. Start conversations

It’s OK to talk about the things that bother kids and young people. If you happen to see something in the media about Covid, start a conversation. Ask your child or young person how they feel about it, or what they think might happen. Questions are the answers to knowing more about what’s going on in your child’s world and dialogue helps to keep your relationship open so that your child knows it’s all right to discuss their fears or worries with you.

5. Make news time quality family time instead

If you decide to turn off the news, make it family time instead. Start conversations about what happened during the day, play board games, watch a movie or listen to music together. Take advantage of the time away from the media to have some quality family time instead. In the future, no one will wish they’d watched the news, but you will form closer family relationships and good memories.

Reducing media time can be a good thing

Reducing media exposure can be a good thing for your child or your family. While you can remain informed about world events, it’s possible to maintain a healthy balance by knowing when it’s time for a break from the media, especially if your child has anxiety around Covid news.

For other anxiety tips and strategies, head over to my website where you’ll find lots of resources to help kids and families deal with anxiety.

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