More Green, Less Screen: Tech Use Linked to Mental Health Struggles for Kids

(Oswald TK, et al (2020); PLOS ONE, CC BY 4.0)

(CN) — Want to help your short-tempered child who struggles with sleep? Replace screen time with “green time.”

In a new study, researchers in Australia found that more time in nature is associated with better mental health for children and adolescents.

“The prevalence of mental illness among children and adolescents is increasing globally,” wrote Tassia Oswald of the University of Adelaide and colleagues in the September issue of the open-access journal PLOS ONE.

It’s no secret that technological advances in recent decades have led to increased — and in many cases pervasive — usage of electronic devices among young people, degrading their mental health and well-being. But research on the psychological impacts of using technology typically fails to spell out the difference between screen time and green time on young minds — until now.

To answer this question, Oswald and her colleagues analyzed 186 studies for evidence “assessing associations between screen time, green time, and psychological outcomes (including mental health, cognitive functioning, and academic achievement) for children and adolescents.”

To no one’s surprise, higher levels of screen time was associated with lower psychological health, while green time was linked to more favorable mental functioning. Of particular importance, Oswald and her team discovered that poorer kids tend to be more influenced by extensive tech exposure than their wealthier peers, highlighting the need for further research.

Conversely, researchers found that more time spent in nature could potentially buffer the effects of increased screen exposure, an outcome researchers said indicates nature isn’t being used enough “to promote youth psychological well-being in a high-tech era.”

A U.S. survey from a decade ago found that the average daily screen time for kids ages 8 to 18 totaled 7.5 hours per day, and was highest among 11 to 14-year-olds at a whopping nine hours.

“Children in high-income countries are now experiencing significantly lower levels of contact with nature… than previous generations,” the study authors wrote. “For example, 12-year-old children in the U.S. report spending an average of less than six hours per week outdoors, which is less than the average daily screen time for young people.”

Rapid urbanization has contributed to this decline in outdoor exposure, reducing greenspaces and private gardens for increased housing and commercial development. Researchers found that the benefits of spending time in nature are numerous, including increased physical activity and reduced air and noise pollution, as well as better attention span and lower stress.

And the personal experiences of screen time are “stimulating,” as extensive use can “potentially displace important protective behaviors,” making them detrimental to psychological well-being.

In contrast, increased exposure to natural settings led to reduced depression, fewer peer problems, greater behavior skills and higher language development.

Oswald and her team found a distinction between aspects of screen time relative to age groups within their study. Specifically, they noted that watching TV did not harm mental health among adolescents aged 12 to 18, unlike more interactive computer programs. In fact, certain forms of technology, such as playing video games, let to better visual-spatial abilities. But the improvements were limited.

“Studies reported that high levels of video game playing were associated with lower emotional functioning, health-related quality of life, psychological scores, and quality of life,” the authors said.

Researchers noted one study in which German adolescents participated in a 10-day outdoor adventure program with no access to technology.

“Participation in the outdoor adventure program resulted in improved mental health across a range a measures for both low/moderate and high (screen time) users.”

Another important study finding: the correlation between corrosive screen-time effects and the age of the user. Researchers found that heavy screen exposure among younger kids had a harsher effect on their overall health, as screen time interrupted both parent-child interactions and the quality of child play.

While researchers continued to encourage further research, one of their findings was clear.

“Nature may currently be an underutilized public health resource.”

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