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  • Writer's pictureTo Your Health Editorial Staff

Screen time vs 'green time'

If there's one thing that gets parents and kids sparring, it's screen time.

Parents typically fall into the "screen time is bad for you, get outside and play" camp, and kids into the "I'll play later, there's nothing to do outside, what do you know, what's my screen doing in the fireplace?" camp.

But a paper published today in PLOS ONE has found that there's a link between too much screen time and poor mental health outcomes for young people.

This might seem obvious, but research into the links between screens and mental health is far from cut and dried.

Authors of this latest review of 186 studies also found that spending time in nature or "green time" was associated with positive mental health outcomes.

But in a bit of a boon for the kids, evidence shows that some screen time helps keep young people connected with their peers, and computer games may help things like cognitive function and coordination.

There's also a suggestion that some of the negative associations with high amounts of screen time could be offset by extra time spent playing outside and in nature.

More than seven hours a day

The researchers found that kids in the US average about seven-and-a-half hours per day of screen time, according to lead author, PhD candidate Tassia Oswald of the University of Adelaide.

While there wasn't a great deal of data on how much time Australian kids spend in front of screens, Ms Oswald said Australian kids were believed to have similar screen habits to US children.

"The overwhelming majority [of studies] found that there was an association between increased screen time and unfavourable psychological outcomes," she said.

The "unfavourable psychological outcomes" were different between the age groups studied.

"Excessive screen time for young children under five years was more often associated with poor cognitive outcomes. That makes sense because at that age they're developing cognitive abilities like language," she said.

    "In adolescents there was more association between mental health outcomes like depression and anxiety."

Are screens the real issue?

Teasing out the exact impact, if any, of screen time on our mental health is extremely difficult.

A wide range of factors, including our interpersonal relationships, previous traumatic experiences, bullying, hormones, developmental stages, and genetics, can all affect young people's mental health in different ways.

This is one of the reasons why the issue of screen time is so contentious, and not just between kids and their parents.

It's also difficult to determine whether increased screen time is a symptom or a cause of declining mental health.

One paper included in the review found that 73 per cent of Australian adults reported spending more time playing outdoors than indoors during their youth. However, just 13 per cent estimated the same was true for their own kids.

Research conducted by Karen Malone from Swinburne University has found that there is a positive correlation between mental health outcomes in kids and adolescents and the amount of autonomy they have to roam outside unsupervised.

"I was involved in four studies where we looked at cultural differences across countries. That research looked at what is children's spatial range — how far and how much autonomy they have to leave their home," she said.

"In countries like Tanzania and poor settlement communities in South Africa, kids' mobility is quite high because their parents may not have cars or they may live in small houses — kids don't have room to play inside."

In affluent regions, including Australia, the freedom of kids to roam the streets and neighbourhoods unsupervised shrunk significantly during the late 1980s, '90s and 2000s, mostly out of safety fears for kids or the assumption that adolescents may be "up to no good", Professor Malone said.

However, the same contraction didn't take place in poorer countries and regions.

"This is interesting because in high-income nations and wealthier neighbourhoods, you find that children are restricted in their independent mobility movement the most," she said.

"[In Australia] safety is often the biggest issue. What we found is that having the fear around children's independence to go outside is actually quite a middle class privilege.

    "In lower income nations we don't have evidence that mental health issues are increasing.

"The question for me is, is screen time the cause of mental illness or is it the symptom of life out of balance?"

Kids may default to high screen time because we don't have a culture that makes it easy for them to get out and play. However, the actual catalyst for declining mental health may be the lack of autonomous exploring rather than the screens themselves, according to Professor Malone.

Ironically, in many of those poorer countries and townships it may be far more dangerous for kids to roam unsupervised, she said.

"In places where I've worked around La Paz [Bolivia], something like 10 per cent of those children have been kidnapped."

Striking a balance

But socioeconomics isn't the only factor influencing how young people spend their time.

Autonomy to roam and play unsupervised can be shaped by seemingly unrelated factors, Professor Malone said.

"It's not always based on socioeconomic status. Sometimes we find children in low socioeconomic areas have much more freedom and some have less, and the same goes in some middle class neighbourhoods," she said.

    "We found that children who live in cul de sacs have something like 50 per cent more freedom to roam than those who don't. It can be something as specific as that."

While the definition of "green time" was fairly loose, today's analysis also found that there was an association between increased time in nature and positive mental health outcomes.

But that is old news, according to Tonia Gray, a senior researcher in educational research at Western Sydney University.

"We need to counterbalance the time we spend on screens or computers with the time we push the pause button," Professor Gray said.

"It's a bit like a carbon offset — if we're going to fly in a plane, what are we going to do?"

The authors of today's paper focused on quantitative studies — studies based on numerical data — rather than qualitative studies, based on people describing their experiences.

However, we can get a much greater depth of understanding of screen vs green time by including qualitative data, Professor Gray said.

"There is no doubt whatsoever that green time improves our health and wellbeing, and our attention and ability to focus. There is a strong correlation there [and] that correlation comes from speaking to teachers," she said.

The way back is to increase the amount of green space in our cities and towns, but also to change our thinking around risk and children, according to Professor Gray.

"Parents have become so risk averse. We've got to become risk technicians," she said.

    "We need to find a fine balance between letting [kids] see their limits and what their bodies are capable of, and letting them see the consequences of their poor decisions.

"So when they're teenagers and they have the choice to get into a car with a drink driver, they're better equipped to weigh up the costs."

Changes also need to also happen on a social and cultural level, according to Professor Malone.

In countries like Australia, adolescents are often restricted in their movement because there is a perception that the community doesn't support them being on the streets.

But in countries like Japan, there is a more communal attitude toward children.

"Japanese children fundamentally across the world have the highest mobility of children. We found that in those countries adults are more likely to take care of children if they get into trouble — there's less fear."

"[Kids are] given opportunities to be self determining and autonomous. They get to grow their own choices."

Article from ABC Science

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