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.
A University of Adelaide review of 186 studies from around the world found green time is better for children and adolescents mental health and academic achievement than screen time
‘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.
Word cloud of the different activities that constitute green time (green) and screen time (blue)
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.
Screen time – time spent watching TV, computers or playing video games – is generally associated with poor psychological outcomes for children and adolescents including increased levels of mental illness, poorer cognitive functioning and poorer academic achievement
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.
Studies have already linked access or a proximity to green spaces with good performance in school
‘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.
CHILD MIND INSTITUTE ON THE BENEFITS OF NATURE
Child Mind Institute, a US charity devoted to children’s mental health, has drawn up a list of befits of getting kids outdoors more.
It says kids who play outside are smarter, happier, more attentive, and less anxious than kids who spend more time indoors.
‘While it’s unclear how exactly the cognitive functioning and mood improvements occur, there are a few things we do know about why nature is good for kids’ minds.’
It builds confidence
The way that kids play in nature has a lot less structure than most types of indoor play.
There are infinite ways to interact with outdoor environments, from the backyard to the park to the local hiking trail or lake, and letting your child choose how he treats nature means he has the power to control his own actions.
It promotes creativity and imagination
This unstructured style of play also allows kids to interact meaningfully with their surroundings.
They can think more freely, design their own activities, and approach the world in inventive ways.
It teaches responsibility
Living things die if mistreated or not taken care of properly, and entrusting a child to take care of the living parts of their environment means they’ll learn what happens when they forget to water a plant, or pull a flower out by its roots.
It provides different stimulation
Nature may seem less stimulating than your son’s violent video game, but in reality, it activates more senses—you can see, hear, smell, and touch outdoor environments.
‘As the young spend less and less of their lives in natural surroundings, their senses narrow,’ said Richard Louv, author of the book Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder.
‘This reduces the richness of human experience.
It gets kids moving
Most ways of interacting with nature involve more exercise than sitting on the couch.
Your kid doesn’t have to be joining the local soccer team or riding a bike through the park—even a walk will get her blood pumping.
Not only is exercise good for kids’ bodies, but it seems to make them more focused, which is especially beneficial for kids with ADHD.
It makes them think
Louv said nature creates a unique sense of wonder for kids that no other environment can provide.
The phenomena that occur naturally in backyards and parks everyday make kids ask questions about the earth and the life that it supports.
It reduces stress and fatigue
According to the Attention Restoration Theory, urban environments require what’s called directed attention, which forces us to ignore distractions and exhausts our brains.
In natural environments, we practice an effortless type of attention known as soft fascination that creates feelings of pleasure, not fatigue.
Source: Child Mind Institute