Social Media and Physical Activity Education for Young People during the Covid-19 Pandemic

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the University of Birmingham

“We need to remember that for many young people social media is a positive learning resource, that can impact positively on their health and wellbeing.”

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The current period of social distancing and isolation is creating challenges for parents and carers to find ways to support young people to stay active. The dynamic environment provided by social media can be used to promote physical activity - and that can help adults to help young people stay active every day. 

We need to remember that for many young people social media is a positive learning resource, that can impact positively on their health and wellbeing. Adults can help during these unprecedented times, by engaging with and understanding how to harness the educative potential of social media in physical activity promotion - while at the same time ensuring young people remain safe and healthy online.

The current UK Chief Medical Officers’ Physical Activity Guidelines state that all young people (age 5-18) should complete 60 minutes physical activity per day (or equivalent accumulated across the week). Activities should be spread throughout the day and focus on the development of movement skills and muscle and bone strength, such as play, run/walk, skipping, climbing, sport, workouts, dance, and biking. This is all because being active has a number of benefits, including: confidence and social skills, co-ordination, concentration and learning, muscle and bone strength, health and fitness, healthy weight maintenance, sleep and overall wellbeing. 

In the past few weeks an unprecedented amount of online resources and social media material have been promoted and released to help adults keep young people active in the home. For example, Joe Wicks (TheBodyCoach) is providing online physical education lessons in the form of High Intensity (HIT) Workouts on YouTube for families 9am each weekday, Sport England have released guidance on staying active, promoting 10 minute workouts, and Disney Dance Alongs and Disney themed-indoor games, and the BBC have promoted their SuperMovers programs focused on integrating movement with academic learning in Maths, English and Science. 

There is a wealth of resources for young people and adults to choose from – how can adults help young people navigate their way through this wealth of material? 

In our research in the School of Sport, Exercise and Rehabilitation Sciences we have been working with young people (n=1300, 13-18) across the UK to better understand, from their perspectives, how they use social media in relation to physical activity. This information can be useful in helping adults determine the opportunities and risks of social media for physical activity education, and the types of material that young people engage with and use to inform their physical activity behaviours, and/or disregard because it is irrelevant, potentially harmful to their bodies, and/or just boring to use over time. 

What should we be looking for?

To ensure young people engage with physical activity safely, adults and young people should be looking out for social media content that’s relevant to young people’s bodies, age-appropriate and focused on wider health and educative benefits, rather than just body image or fitness. 

To sustain engagement and interest, peer and family support should be considered as one way (amongst others – and get outside when you can!) to engage in physical activity, such as doing exercises in the home together, supporting social media communication in peer groups, and/or family, friend, youth sport online (e.g. zoom, Skype, WhatsApp) clubs to support social communication.

And to move beyond the novelty effect, variety is also important, engaging with different activities where possible (such as those listed in the Physical Activity Guidelines, including movement skills, climbing, play), supporting learning and the educative element of physical activity (i.e. more than workouts); and by promoting choice and decision making, such as by supporting young people to create and design their own activities. 

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