Heavy use of video games and less time in nature may affect mental health in kids and adolescents: Study
Parents can ensure that children get their dose of nature by ensuring they have close access to safe and high-quality green spaces, say experts
The rise of electronic media has seen more children staying cooped up at their homes, spending a lot of time on screens -- video games or television -- while engaging little with nature. According to a new study, this behavior is tied to lower levels of positive mental health, mental abilities, and academic achievement.
This pattern of heavy electronic media use or high screen time may lead to mental illness. One study found that children spending more time in front of the screen tend to get easily distracted and face more problems completing tasks or striking up new friendships. "You often hear parents talk about how much time their kids spend in front of screens and how little they get outdoors," Tassia Oswald, a PhD student at the University of Adelaide, told MEA WorldWide (MEAWW). "But, surprisingly, no one has taken a step back to look at the evidence and determine whether or not this combination of high 'screen time' and low 'green time' is actually harmful to young people," she explained.
So Oswald and her colleagues scoured data from 186 studies to gather evidence on the link between screen time, green time, and psychological outcomes such as mental health, mental abilities, and academic achievement for children and adolescents. They found a link between high screen time and outcomes, such as lower levels of positive mental health, mental abilities, and academic achievement. More green time had strong ties with favorable effects on psychological wellbeing and learning. The study also pointed out that there is scarce information on the impacts of screen time on children from a lower socioeconomic background, adding that they are more likely to get disproportionality affected.
There are no clear reasons why more screen time hurts children, but experts believe a theory could be at play. According to Oswald, heavy electronic media use can leave children with little time for activities that protect mental health, such as physical activity, sleep, and social interactions. "However, there is a need for more studies which examine the role of these variables on the pathway between screen time and mental health," she explained.
More questions on the links
More research could help address a few questions. For instance, Oswald asked in the research, what makes up the best green time: "Was it living in a green neighborhood, or spending time in a park for a specific amount of time each week?"
Further, the analysis found little information on the impacts of popular technologies like tablets and smartphones. "They are pervasive in our lives," she said, adding a lot of previous studies have focused on television, computers, and videogames. "Finally, we need more research looking at the impacts of both screen time and green time," Oswald noted. Experts are yet to understand if poor mental health is due to high screen time or low green time, or a combination of the two.
As for the limitations, Oswald said, the study has not looked at the extent of effects screen and green time can have on mental health. Neither did it investigate how educational content and violent video games affected children. Nevertheless, parents can ensure that children get their dose of nature. "Ensuring young people have close access to safe, high-quality green spaces is the first step in encouraging more time outdoors," Oswald explained. "This is particularly important at the moment with the pandemic. If there is no nice park within 5 km of some people's homes, they will miss out on the mental health benefits offered by nature."
The study is published in PLOS.