The Impact of the Covid-19 Pandemic on Teenage Girls’ Lives and Physical Activity

The teenage years are an important life stage and for girls their formative experiences during the pandemic will likely shape their attitudes and behaviours for years to come. The latest research from Women in Sport looks at the impact of the pandemic on the experiences of teenage girls

Overhead view of a group dance exercise class in a community centre

The teenage years are an important life stage and for girls their formative experiences during the pandemic will likely shape their attitudes and behaviours for years to come. Previous research by Women in Sport highlighted five important anchors which reflect what girls’ value in life: Support network, socially connected, independence and new experiences, moments of pride, and keeping on top of it all. These five strands have been significantly affected by the pandemic.

Support network

Throughout adolescence friends are important for girls’ development as they gain their independence and explore their identity. Throughout the pandemic the limitations on activities and socialising has resulted in 70% of girls saying that they missed spending time with friends more than anything else during lockdown. This in turn has affected their wellbeing as maintaining friendships whilst not in school and managing lockdown rules have strained relationships and led to the loss of close friendship. This has led to 43% of girls reporting feeling lonely.

"I’ve been feeling distant from my friends recently and this has caused a lot of overthinking and general sadness as I don’t want to drift away from them.”

Whilst relationships with friends have become strained the time spent with family has increased for the majority of girls (58%), this in turn has brought many families closer as they have explored new ways to fill their time. Mums, for many, have been the greatest support during the pandemic and in turn girls have wanted to support more to reduce some of the pressure their mums are under. Support from mums has been the main support for girls becoming more active during this time with 55% of girls saying they have supported the most whilst 31% said friends were the main source of support in becoming active.

Socially connected

Teenage girls have grown up with the internet and social media as a key part of their lives, but, the pandemic has increased their time online, 88% spent more time on their phone/social media during the pandemic. Whilst being online has provided entertainment, allowed them to remain connected with friends and become active it has drawbacks, with four in ten (39%) reporting that spending too much time on social media makes them anxious. 74% of girls surveyed said they would prefer to see their friends face-to-face than on social media and in fact almost half now wanted to reduce the time they spend on social media.

Independence and new experiences

Whilst early on in the pandemic the closure of schools provided an opportunity for a break from the stress of schoolwork the novelty wore off. Ultimately the restrictions stifled their independence and opportunities for new and exciting experiences. Overall 90% of girls reported spending more time indoors/in their home. Overall, girls have missed many things but primarily the most missed activities are associated with socialising:

  • 70% hanging out with friends
  • 55% going out to places (cinema, restaurant, shopping)
  • 44% normal school life

Moments of pride

Whilst the pandemic has placed many restrictions on daily life, teenage girls have found new ways to be productive and feel good about themselves. This has been through learning new skills and supporting their family and community. For those classed as inactive the extended time at home has, in their words, led to them feeling lazy, this has, in turn been a motivator for moving more. In fact 68% of less active girls said that doing exercise and physical activity is now important for them to feel good about themselves, with 65% saying it is important for building their confidence.

Keeping on top of it all

Teenagers have a range of competing demands and expectations and living through this unprecedented time has been a rollercoaster. The stresses around home learning and exams combined with the pressure of adopting new habits and behaviours and keeping themselves, friends and family safe has had a negative impact on girls. In fact 55% of girls are struggling to feel positive during the pandemic and many feel bored (74%), lonely (43%) and anxious (34%).

Participation in Physical Activity

Active Lives data shows that activity levels for teenage girls was up 6% during the first half of the pandemic. By February 2021 62% of girls reported doing less activity than before the pandemic and just 9% reporting an increase in activity. However, for some less active girls the pandemic has resulted in a change in behaviour with a quarter (26%) of girls who were previously less active reporting doing more activity, and 22% feeling that they had become fitter.

"Told myself I was going to do a workout almost every day in lockdown… then I stopped because I wasn’t motivated anymore.”

Early on, online exercise classes gained popularity amongst teenage girls, 46% of girls took part in some form of online exercise during the pandemic. However, 63% said it was hard to keep motivated online, and this was irrespective of their previous activity status. Engagement was not regular or sustained with girls reporting that the activities were too intense or serious, as well as too repetitive and generic whilst the lack of social interaction in the sessions minimised the fun and engagement.

Whilst live sessions are more motivating for girls the fear of judgement is high, two thirds (65%) of girls said that they don’t like watching themselves on a webcam. Furthermore, 57% of girls don’t have enough space to participate properly, this may be due to a sense of embarrassment due to having to exercise in front of their family as a result of a lack of private space. 48% of girls surveyed said they don’t like taking part in online activity in their homes and need the right environment to motivate them. Home is often seen as a relaxing and private space that they don’t associate with exercise and is also filled with distractions (phone, TV etc) that are often more appealing than exercise.

The primary factors which would encourage girls to do more exercise online:

  • 70% more fun and excitement
  • 55% more classes for girls of my age/like me
  • 44% make it more sociable and interactive

The closure of facilities and organised sport hit active girls significantly and whilst many activities have moved online just 18% of active girls said they took part in the online sessions. Overall, online delivery failed to replicate the fun, excitement, togetherness and teamwork which sport gave them. Overall almost half (45%) of active girls reported that they have lost confidence in their sporting ability during the pandemic.

Whilst traditional activities have been severely limited, walking has boomed with 41% of girls saying they have been walking more. Walking has been increasingly used for travel to school as well as an opportunity to spend time with friends and family in a lower risk environment. However, winter posed a challenge with 69% finding it more of a struggle to exercise during this time whilst 36% didn’t have appropriate clothing to exercise outdoors. In order to encourage girls to continue activity during the winter months there needs to be a shift in the narrative and present being active in winter as an invigorating challenge that can connect girls with both the great outdoors and others.

Exercising in public and fear of anyone being able to watch and criticise them is also an issue. Over half of all girls (57%) said they feel self-conscious and judged when exercising outdoors and this was slightly higher for less active girls (65%). Exercising with others helps girls feel more comfortable and confident, but 4 in 10 girls (42%) said there is nothing fun for them do outdoors and, worryingly, over a third (38%) don’t feel safe exercising outdoors in their area. Beyond traditional team sports and running, there are few outdoor initiatives (and safe spaces) that are targeted at teenage girls to get active with friends and family.

During the pandemic many girls have come to realise the value of physical activity and mental health with 52% of girls agreeing that keeping fit is more important than ever. Many are now recognising the benefits being active holds on their lives:

  • 55% makes me feel happier
  • 54% makes me less stressed
  • 49% helps protect me against getting sick

Read the full report here.

Published April 2021