Study uncovers troubling rise in screen time among rural youth

Even kids in rural South Carolina now spend more time in front of screens than outdoors in nature, according to a new study that appears in Environment and Behavior. The research found that this trend was more pronounced for girls, African American students, and older youth.

“Over the past 20 years, society has become increasingly concerned by a dramatic rise in children’s ‘screen time’ (for example, see this report on media in the lives of youth) and an associated decline in time spent outdoors in nature (for example, see the book Last Child in the Woods),” explained study author Lincoln R. Larson of North Carolina State University.

“The implications of this shift could have profound negative implications for youth development. However, much of this evidence is anecdotal and few studies have directly compared the screen time and outdoor time of youth — especially youth living in rural areas. We wanted to explore relationships between these two potentially competing activities and determine if participation rates differed among different groups of youth.”

The researchers surveyed 543 sixth- to eighth-grade students across rural South Carolina. Overall, about 70% of the students reported spending at least 30 minutes outdoors in nature each day, while 40% reported spending more than 2 hours outdoors.

Students who spent more time outdoors were more likely to agree with statements like “I feel very connected to all living things and the Earth,” “I notice plants and animals wherever I am,” and “I think about how what I do affects the Earth.”

But screen time was higher than outdoor time for almost every demographic group that the researchers examined. Students who reported increased screen time tended to also report lower levels of connectedness to nature.

“In our study of middle school-aged youth we found that although most youth spent time outdoors, they spent more time with electronic media. The outdoor vs. screen time discrepancy was particularly pronounced for girls, African Americans, and 8th graders (compared to 6th and 7th graders),” Larson told PsyPost.

“These groups were also less connected to nature than their peers. The alarming patterns we observed could have significant implications for children’s physical, mental, and social health and well-being — especially among those groups at higher risk (e.g., girls and youth of color). We need to think about ways to moderate screen time and integrate more outdoor time into children’s lives to ensure that all youth are able to enjoy benefits associated with both activities.”

Some studies have indicated that too much screen time is linked to heightened levels of anxiety or depression, and reduced curiosity, self-control, and emotional stability. But more research is needed to better understand consequences of declining outdoor time and escalating screen time.

“This study provided some unique insight into the screen time vs. outdoor time conflict for youth, but many questions remain unanswered. How much outdoor time is needed to for children to experience developmental benefits, and what types of ‘natural’ settings are preferable?” Larson explained.

“Are trends and patterns in urban areas more pronounced than those observed in our rural sample? How do we create programs and opportunities that foster more time outdoors across diverse populations of youth? Are there ways to blend electronic media and nature to facilitate positive, technology-mediated outdoor engagement?”

“While the movement to connect children and nature is growing (for more on that, see the Children & Nature Network), some disciplines have been slow to embrace it,” Larson added.

“For example, in psychology and public health, the powerful influence of nature on health and well-being is slowly being recognized and integrated into intervention design and decision making processes. If we can enhance awareness by clearly communicating the evidence-based developmental benefits that nature provides (and the consequences associated with diminishing time outdoors), we can expedite this process and help to create a healthier and more sustainable future.”

The study, “Outdoor Time, Screen Time, and Connection to Nature: Troubling Trends Among Rural Youth?“, was authored by Lincoln R. Larson, Rachel Szczytko, Edmond P. Bowers, Lauren E. Stephens, Kathryn T. Stevenson, and Myron F. Floyd.