New research confirms the dangers of too much screen time for kids and teens: Those who play sports, take music lessons, or socialize with friends after school are happier and healthier than children who are glued to a screen during these hours.
"Screen time, where you are sitting and watching TV or playing computer games or scrolling social media for hours on end, is so detrimental because it's sedentary and usually not engaging," said study author Rosa Virgara, a research associate at the University of South Australia.
She and her colleagues looked at how nearly 62,000 kids aged 4 to 9 spent their time after school. These kids also completed questionnaires about their well-being. Children who played video games, watched TV and used social media after school almost always had lower levels of well-being than their peers who took part in after-school activities, the study showed.
Kids from lower socioeconomic backgrounds were less likely to play sports, take music lessons or hang out with friends than kids who came from wealthier households, but the study found those who had access to organized sports were happier and healthier as a result.
Specifically, kids from lower socioeconomic backgrounds who frequently played sports were 15% more likely to be optimistic, 14% more likely to be happy and satisfied with their life, and 10% more likely to be able to control their emotions, compared with those kids who didn't play sports after school, the study showed.
Parents and caregivers should try to limit screen time and encourage other activities after school, said Virgara.
"I would encourage parents to try to set some limits around screen use [and] encourage children to be active either before or after using screens, or offer alternative activities such as listening to music, mindful coloring, board games or puzzles if they are after some quiet activities," she said.
Sports provide regular physical activity and offer an opportunity for camaraderie and social connections, Virgara said.
"Scientific evidence has found time and time again that children's participation in sport is linked with improved social and psychological outcomes such as healthier self-image, reduced anxiety and depressive symptoms, and higher levels of academic achievement," she said.
The study was published recently in the journal BMC Pediatrics.
Dr. Lauren Roth, an attending physician in the division of academic general pediatrics at Children's Hospital at Montefiore in New York City, said the new findings unfortunately do mirror what she sees in her practice.
"We know how challenging it is for families of lower socioeconomic status to engage in organized sports and activities due to the associated financial costs, in addition to the burden of transportation and general access to these types of activities," said Roth, who has no ties to the new research.
"We can [and should] continue to encourage all youth, regardless of socioeconomic status, to try to limit screen time, participate in organized sports/activities, and find time to spend outdoors," she said.
Systemic barriers must be addressed to ensure equitable access to these opportunities for all kids, Roth said. This includes offering free or low-cost activities, ensuring safe playgrounds and green spaces, and increasing access to equipment and facilities for organized sports and after-school programs.
The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry offers tips on how to manage a kid's screen time.
SOURCES: Rosa Virgara, PhD, research associate, University of South Australia, Adelaide; Lauren Roth, MD, attending physician, division of academic general pediatrics, Children's Hospital at Montefiore, and assistant professor, pediatrics, Albert Einstein College of Medicine, New York City; BMC Pediatrics, May 21, 2022