ADELAIDE, Australia — Kids who go straight onto their screens after school are more miserable and feel less healthy than those who do homework or play outside, a new study reveals.

Researchers from the University of South Australia say those who meet up with friends, practice sports, or take music lessons feel much better about themselves. They also found that kids didn’t have to get out and exercise to feel more positive than those on screens, as doing their homework or reading also contributed to better well-being.

The team analyzed data from 61,759 school students in fourth through ninth grade to see what they did between 3 p.m. and 6 p.m. each day. Results show most students watched TV about four days a week and spent time on social media about three times a week.

Researchers measured the activities against well-being factors such as happiness, sadness, worry, engagement, perseverance, optimism, emotion regulation, and life satisfaction.

‘There’s something about all screens that’s damaging’

Overall, the study found that children’s well-being improves when they participate in extracurricular activities but drops when they spend time on social media or using screens. Lead researcher Dr. Rosa Virgara says the research highlights an acute need to encourage children to participate in activities and cut down on screen time.

“Our study highlights how some out-of-school activities can boost children’s well-being, while others – particularly screens – can chip away at their mental and physical health,” Virgara says in a university release. “Screens are a massive distraction for children of all ages. Most parents will attest to this. And whether children are gaming, watching TV or on social media, there’s something about all screens that’s damaging to their well-being.”

“It’s interesting because you might think that it’s the lack of physical movement that’s causing this, yet our research shows that doing homework or reading – both sedentary activities – positively contribute to well-being, so it’s something else,” Virgara continues. “In fact, we found that children’s well-being was higher when they participated in extra-curricular activities – even if they already reported being happy.”

“What this shows is that we need to find ways to encourage children of all ages and backgrounds to get involved in activities that keep them away from TV, computers and mobile devices.”

“Helping children develop a good sense of personal well-being is paramount in today’s uncertain environment,” the study author adds. “This is especially important for primary school-aged children as they’re learning about the challenges and risks that full-time school can present; but it’s equally important for teenagers who are facing a range of physical, social and emotional changes.”

Screens are ‘not helping build or sustain positive well-being’

The study, published in the journal BMC Pediatrics, shows that students in lower socioeconomic backgrounds who frequently played sport were 15 percent more likely to be optimistic, 14 percent more likely to be happy and satisfied with their life, and 10 percent more likely to be able to regulate their emotions.

Conversely, children who played video games and used social media almost always had lower levels of well-being. They were up to nine percent less likely to be happy, up to eight percent to be less optimistic, and 11 percent to be more likely to give up on things.

“Children who were more at risk tended to come from lower socio-economic backgrounds, which indicates a clear need for greater support in these areas,” Dr. Virgara says. “All in all, the message is clear – gaming, watching TV, playing on computers, and scrolling through social media are not helping build or sustain positive well-being in children.”

“It’s certainly a challenge, especially as most children have been brought up on devices. But if families can be more aware of the issues associated with screens, then perhaps we can find a better balance of screen time and other out-of-school activities.”

South West News Service writer Jim Leffman contributed to this report.

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