A recent study published in The Lancet Child and Adolescent Health has added further to the growing body of evidence that too much screen time and too little physical activity is detrimental to the mental health of children.
In a survey of more than 577,000 11-, 13- and 15-year-olds in 42 European and North American countries, it was found that boys who spent about 90 minutes a day on their screens — including TV, cellphones, computers and video games — and girls who spent an hour on devices were more likely to feel sad about their lives. It also indicated that the more screen time they logged, the worse they tended to feel.
Conversely, the more active they were, the happier they were. It would appear that physical activity helped blunt some of the negatives resulting from too much screen time.
In view of these findings, the author of the study, Asad Khan, an associate professor for biostatistics and epidemiology at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia has advised that “Screen time should be replaced by ‘green time’ for optimizing the well-being of our kids”.
While the study was not designed to specifically demonstrate how — or even if — too much screen time and too little exercise affect tween and teen well-being, the findings do indicate a “dose-dependent” trend and demonstrate a trend that the more screen time a teen has, the less satisfied they were with life.
Participants who were less active physically were more likely to feel irritable or nervous, and to report trouble sleeping, headaches, stomachaches and backaches, while participants who reported more than eight hours a day on their screens showed dramatic increases in life satisfaction and fewer health complaints when they bumped up their physical activity
These findings suggested physical activity promotes mental well-being even when kids also spend lots of time glued to their screens.
Given that there are only 24 hours a day, however, it is logical to conclude that the more time you spend on your device, the less time you will have for physical activity. Unsurprisingly, only 19% of the young respondents reported they were physically active every day, and their average recreational screen time was about six hours a day.
Khan has called on parents to support their kids by setting a good example of moderating their screen time and increasing their physical activity.
“We can create ‘technology-free zones,’ set aside times to unplug, explain why we’re limiting their screen time, and create opportunities for other activities especially in outdoor settings,” he said.
Other experts have also chipped in, saying that families need to play a more proactive role to help get kids off their screen and into the green.
“My advice to families is to set reasonable limits on [nonacademic] screen time and to work with teens to schedule preferred activities that do not involve screens,” said Sarah Hornack, a psychologist at Children’s National Hospital in Washington, D.C., who reviewed the findings. “We know that family-based approaches to increasing physical activity are the most effective.” This can include family hiking, family step challenges, or having dance-offs, she said.
The American Academy of Pediatrics’ recommendation is a limit of two hours daily of nonacademic screen time. Excessive screen time isn’t healthy for anybody — kids or adults, says Dr. Gene Beresin, executive director of the Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.
Khan and his team are now trying to understand the effects of various types of screen use on mental well-being — whether passive [e.g. television] and mentally active [e.g. electronic games] have equivalent and dose-dependent links with the mental well-being of adolescents.