Dr Bai Li: How governments can protect children from sedentary behaviour

It is a no-brainer for the Government to introduce legislation that regulates sedentary activities in order to protect children’s wellbeing. Evidence from high-quality health research around the world has shown that too much sedentary behaviour negatively affects many aspects of children’s wellbeing. The Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated this global challenge, and World Health Organization guidelines on sedentary behaviour call for more system-wide policies. Regulatory interventions have the potential to act on sedentary behaviour more holistically, and since they do not depend on individuals’ participation and circumstances, they can maximise reach, sustainability and help reduce health inequality.

Most parents and carers are concerned about sedentary behaviour. Recently, Dr Bai Li led an international team of health researchers to evaluate the world’s first multi-setting (digital, home and educational settings) regulation, introduced by the Chinese government to safeguard the wellbeing of its young people. The regulation limits when (and for how long) online gaming businesses can provide access to children, the amount of homework teachers can assign to children, and when tutoring businesses can provide lessons. This is the only government-led, multi-setting regulatory intervention on multiple types of sedentary behaviour among children.

Using representative surveillance data from nearly 100,000 children before and after the introduction of the regulation, the research team assessed its impact. They found that the average amount of time children were sedentary each day reduced by 46 minutes. Average daily screen-viewing time (including using mobile phones, game consoles, tablets, televisions) reduced by 6.4 per cent.

The core question for the UK Government and others is not whether they should regulate digital environments and other locally important providers of sedentary behaviour to improve the health and wellbeing of young people, but which forms of sedentary behaviour to target and how regulations can be introduced and implemented in a culturally appropriate way to maximise public acceptability and success. In England, school guidance was issued recently that supports head teachers in prohibiting the use of mobile phones, including at break times. This is a positive movement.

The findings of Dr Bai Li’s research are published in the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity.