Children’s mental health and performance in school can be improved by giving them more ‘green time’ in natural environments and less ‘screen time’ spent staring at devices, new research suggests.
A review of 186 studies found time spent in woods, parks and nature reserves positively affects both kids’ psychological well-being and academic achievement.
Meanwhile, screen time – time spent watching TV, computers or playing video games – was associated with poor psychological outcomes, including increased mental illness, poorer cognitive functioning and poorer academic achievement.
Generally, kids from low socioeconomic backgrounds are under-represented in scientific studies into the effects of a lack of access to green space, meaning the issue could be even worse than anticipated.
‘Children and adolescents from low socioeconomic backgrounds may engage in higher levels of screen time and have less access to nature in their neighbourhoods,’ said Tassia Oswald at the University of Adelaide, South Australia.
‘The psychological consequences of excessive screen time appears to possibly be worse for these children, while psychological benefits of green time appears to possibly be greater for these children.’
The prevalence of mental illness among children and adolescents is increasing globally, and in particular, depression and anxiety are leading causes of reduced quality of life among children and adolescents.
Experiences of depressive and anxiety symptoms in childhood and adolescence are associated with an elevated risk of poor mental health in adulthood, suggesting ‘enduring consequences’, the experts say.
But it has been often claimed that immersing children in nature can improve their scientific understanding, awaken the senses and offer psychological respite from the confines of the living room.
Other studies suggest that even just putting up pictures of trees and greenery can affect psychological outcomes – even if the space itself doesn’t change.
Oswald and her fellow researchers based their findings on 186 previous studies about children and adolescents’ mental health and academic achievement and their time spent in front of screens, around nature, or both.
Of these, most (114) were about screen time alone, 58 were about green time alone, and just 14 had elements of both.
The review collected evidence assessing associations between screen time, green time and psychological outcomes for young children (below 5 years), schoolchildren (5 to 11 years), early adolescents (12 to 14 years), and older adolescents (15 to 18 years).
In general, high levels of screen time appeared to be associated with unfavourable psychological outcomes – mental health, cognitive functioning and academic achievement.
While green time appeared to be associated with favourable psychological outcomes.
Overall, green time could ‘buffer’ the consequences of high screen time.
Therefore nature may be ‘an under-utilised public health resource’ for youth psychological well-being in an era of high-tech.
Oswald said it’s still hard to know whether high screen time alone, low green time alone or the combination of both is responsible for poorer child and adolescent mental health.
‘More research in this direction would help us to work out whether we should focus our efforts on reducing young people’s screen time or whether simply increasing their green time alongside their screen time would be beneficial for their psychological well-being,’ she said.
Much screen time research is related to older forms of technology – television, video games and computers, Oswald claims.
Therefore, future research should start to focus at the psychological effects of portable technologies like smartphones and tablets.
These support a rich variety of apps that could actually be helping mental health, and, as demonstrated during lockdown, academic studies.
Experiences of mental illness in childhood or adolescence have implications for an individual’s lifelong mental health trajectory.
‘So prevention is key and identifying exposures which harm or help mental health is especially important for young people,’ Oswald said.
‘Providing parents, teachers, researchers, policy makers, and young people themselves with a summary of what evidence is out there may help them understand the psychological impacts of exposure to screen-based technologies.’
Parents should not necessarily interpret the review as a sign to cut down on their children’s media use, according to Professor Dame Til Wykes, psychology experts at King’s College London, who was not involved with the study, which has been published in PLOS ONE.
‘It all depends on what children do with their time and a mix of activities is what most children need,’ she said.
‘It may also be a lifeline for adolescents who need some social support even if a distraction from family time.’
Previous studies have also used measured children’s ‘access to green space’ based on how close they live to parks and fields.
‘The problem is that families who live closer to green areas differ in lots of ways from those who live in urban settings,’ said developmental psychologist Dr Sam Wass at University of East London, who was also not involved in the study.
‘It’s impossible to be sure that it’s the greenery itself that’s causing the difference.
‘Similarly, families where the children get more screen time differ in lots of different ways from families where the children get less – and it’s impossible to be sure that it’s not one of these other factors that are actually affecting psychological outcomes.
‘This is a very tricky question for scientists to answer.’
There are also many different definitions of what ‘screen time’ actually constitutes –and whether it’s positive or negative.
For example, during the coronavirus lockdown, playing games and going on social media has helped kids keep in touch with friends – essential for good mental health.
‘Many psychologists would agree there’s no point trying to wish screens away,’ said Dr Wass.
‘The most important task is to maximise the potential benefits that we can get from interacting with screens, while minimising any potential harmful effects.’
Previous research claims children who grow up feeling close to nature are happier and more likely to become eco-friendly, compared to those who suffer from ‘nature deficit disorder’.
This term was coined by American writer Richard Louv, who argues that children are being increasingly isolated indoors and have been ‘scared straight out of the woods and fields’ by media and schools.