By Ralph Morris, MD, MPH
It’s the height of summer. The heat is on, but sometimes the air conditioning just doesn’t cut it. Sometimes it’s no fun to stay in the comfortable house and watch television. Summer is the time to spend outdoors; it’s not the time to try and catch cabin fever. That’s why we have winter. So imagine summer without swimming and enjoying the great outdoors, without the sounds of children splashing in the pool, the taste of lemonade while lounging on a pool deck or spending time at the lake. Imagine summer without the blinding sun shimmering off the pool water. One can only imagine then what compels so many children to play video games or play with their smart phones or tablets when the pool and other water sports beckon. Games on tablets and video games are virtual exercises. They pull children into new worlds that are often imagined by executives at gaming companies.
It shouldn’t be a surprise that a new Mason-Dixon survey, conducted on behalf of the Water Quality and Health Council, found that parents are alarmed at the amount of time children spend on electronic devices at the expense of physical activities. The survey found that 94 percent of parents are worried their children are choosing electronic devices over more active pursuits, like swimming. The survey also found that 84 percent of parents would like to see their children swim more often. One might think that a lack of access to a swimming pool could be a big reason why so many parents worry about children spending too much time playing on electronic devices rather than swimming. But that’s not the case: 88 percent reported having access to a swimming pool.
Maybe it’s because children don’t know how to swim. But again, the survey found that is not the case. In fact, most parents said their children can swim, including 78 percent of seven- and eight-year-olds and 89 percent of nine-, 10- and 11-year-olds. Access and ability are no obstacles. Yet parents are definitely concerned that when it comes to capturing the attention of children, activities like swimming are no match for electronic devices. But it’s not just children’s attention that parents are concerned about. There are potential health implications as well. In fact, 93 percent of parents are concerned about those health implications. This is in part because they clearly understand the health benefits of physical activities like swimming. When asked to prioritize the health benefits, parents credited swimming with improving children’s cardiovascular health, followed by increasing strength and flexibility, developing motor skills, managing weight and asthma symptoms.
Some parents were unsure of the benefits of swimming for people with asthma. According to the same survey, one in four respondents did not know that swimming in a well-maintained pool with a proper chlorine level and pH is a healthy activity for children with asthma. In fact, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the World Health Organization and other public health experts have asserted that swimming in a well-maintained pool (a pool with proper chlorine levels and pH) is a healthy form of exercise for people with asthma.
So what can parents do to try to get children out of the virtual world of video games and into the real world of summertime fun? First, they can talk with their children about the health consequences of spending too much time on electronic devices at the expense of more physical pursuits, such as swimming. If children know that sedentary activities have real health impacts, they may be more motivated to get moving. And parents can model the behavior they wish to see in their children. Swimming and other water sports can be great family activities.
Parents can have family meetings to decide together what the right mix of time is for their family on electronic devices versus swimming and other outdoor activities. They can ask their children if they would swim more, if parents also made a commitment to get them to a pool on a regular basis. You may be surprised at how readily children will unplug if given the chance to swim. There are implications for social skills, as indicated by the survey finding that 86 percent of parents are concerned about the impact on children’s social skills. That’s because too much time on electronic devices can be socially isolating. Letting children know that parents are also willing to turn off the computer, smart phone and television to have fun with them can be an important idea to share.
Regardless of how parents try to get children to swim more, it’s important that the pool they swim in is healthy. That means pools should have proper chlorine levels and pH. According to the survey, more than half of respondents did not know that a well-maintained pool can reduce the risk of swimming related ear infections and 23 percent did not know that a well maintained pool can help reduce the risk of developing diarrhea from waterborne germs. Parents have a role to play in keeping pools healthy. As part of its summer Healthy Pools awareness initiative, the Water Quality and Health Council is making free pool test kits available to the public. To order a kit, go to www.healthypools.org.
When it comes to summertime fun, nothing beats a day at the pool, the beach or the lake. And with an open and honest discussion with children, many kids may want to forego video games or smart phones for an afternoon of fun in the water. Imagine that.
About the author
Ralph Morris, a physician with a Masters Degree in public health, boards in preventive medicine and public health, has over 30 years of experience in a variety of settings. Previously, he was Executive Director of the Galveston County Health District in Texas, worked with the Texas Department of Health and most recently, with the Minnesota Department of Health. Morris is a former commissioned officer in the US Public Health Service and a US Army Reserve retired Colonel.