Kids Need Less Screen Time, More Green Time

Study shows this could boost mental wellbeing among children and adolescents.

little boy in a field
'For a child, even getting to run around in a field is a mighty adventure.'.

@atatreedy via Twenty20

Mental health is deteriorating among young people globally. The incidence of depression and anxiety is increasing, and this not only diminishes quality of life, but can have a lasting negative impact as an adolescent reaches adulthood. 

Many experts are trying to get at the root causes of this decline, in order to find ways to prevent further deterioration and to provide more effective help when needed. Two "emerging determinants of interest" are (a) excessive use of screen-based technology, and (b) too little time spent in nature. Most research to date has considered these factors independently, but a group of scientists from University of Adelaide recently decided to look at them jointly, to see if the combination of high screen time (ST) and low "green time" (GT), as they call it, could affect mental wellbeing. 

The result is an open-access study published on September 4, 2020, in the scientific journal PLOS One. It is titled, "Psychological impacts of 'screen time' and 'green time' for children and adolescents: A systematic scoping review." In it, the researchers analyzed data from 186 studies that looked at children's interactions with screen-based technology and nature and their psychological outcomes, including mental health, cognitive functioning, and academic achievement. 

What they found was that, in general, excessive screen time results in poorer psychological health, whereas green time boosts mental wellbeing. Children nowadays are spending more time than ever in front of devices. Ten years ago in the U.S., the average daily screen time for 8-to-18-year-olds was 7.5 hours. As the study states, "This greatly exceeds recreational ST guidelines of 2 hours or less per day," and is made even more challenging by the fact that so many schools are using technology to teach classes. (Read about the WHO's updated screen time guidelines here.)

While some screen time can be beneficial, such as promoting connections and enabling tasks to be done more efficiently, there are many ways in which it is detrimental. In addition to troubling neurological stimulation, excessive screen time "displaces important protective behaviours for mental health such as physical activity, getting adequate sleep, in-person social interactions, and academic activities." (I often think back to Dr. Jean Twenge's comment about how screen time itself is not inherently bad, but the fact that it replaces so many other activities in life is.)

Meanwhile, time spent outdoors has decreased drastically in just one generation. The average 12-year-old in the U.S. spends less than six hours outdoors each week – less than the amount of time spent on screens daily. "Similarly, in England fewer than a quarter of children reported regularly visiting their local ‘patch of nature’ and less than one in ten children reported regularly playing in wild places, compared to half of all children in the previous generation."

And yet, when children do go outside, they thrive. They become more physically active. They enjoy cleaner air and quieter surroundings. Their circadian rhythm is regulated, thanks to the exposure to sunlight, thus "encouraging healthy sleep-wake cycles and improved sleep, which is key for psychological well-being." 

Could Green Time Be a Cure?

The study authors suggest that green time could act as an antidote to screen time, essentially offsetting its negative effects, and should be researched further for this potential:

"Paying constant directed attention to screen-based technologies can lead to directed attention fatigue. Attention Restoration Theory postulates that when direct attention mechanisms are fatigued, they can be restored in natural environments because they employ involuntary attention, which is not tiring or effortful."

This knowledge could be a boon to public health departments that are scrambling to restore happiness and cheer in countless anxiety-ridden adolescents. It suggests that building a park, planting community gardens, implementing broader outdoor education programs in school, and prescribing daily nature walks in a forest could be radical, life-saving projects. 

In the words of lead author Tassia Oswald,

"This systematic scoping review highlights that nature may currently be an under-utilised public health resource, which could potentially function as an upstream preventative and psychological well-being promotion intervention for children and adolescents in a high-tech era."

As usual, the study reveals what needs to be examined in greater depth, such as how low socio-economic circumstances may make children more vulnerable to the negative effects of too much screen time and too little green time; this demographic was underrepresented in the studies that were analyzed and should be examined more closely going forward. 

Nevertheless, it's valuable knowledge for parents, educators, and policy-makers to keep in mind – that children do better when they spend less time online and more time outdoors. We can all do our part to encourage that.