Teens who participate in extracurricular activities have better mental health, study finds

Teenagers who spend less time in front of screens and more time in extracurricular activities such as sports and art fare better in terms of mental health, according to the findings of a new study.

Researchers with the University of British Columbia in a study published in the journal Preventive Medicine found that teens — especially teenage girls — reported better mental health outcomes if they participated in such activities compared to those who did not.

The findings were based on a survey of some 28,712 seventh graders in 365 schools across 27 school districts in Britsh Columbia. The researchers gathered data on the teens’ “recreational screen time,” such as watching TV, playing video games, or browsing the Internet, according to a news release accompanying the study. They also gathered data on the teens’ extracurricular activities before comparing the association “with positive and negative mental health indicators.”

By the end, the researchers found that teens who reported more than two hours of recreational screen time per day had lower levels of “life satisfaction and optimism, and higher levels of anxiety and depressive symptoms.” This was particularly true for teenage girls, they found.

By comparison, the teens who participated in extracurriculars “were significantly less likely to engage in recreational screen-based activities for two or more hours after school,” per the findings. And, unlike their counterparts, these teens were also more likely to report life satisfaction and optimism, as well as lower levels of anxiety and depression symptoms.

Overall, among both boys and girls, the researchers also found that “mental health was strongest when teens both participated in extracurricular activities and spent less than two hours on screen time.”

“Although we conducted this study before the COVID-19 pandemic, the findings are especially relevant now when teens may be spending more time in front of screens in their free time if access to extracurricular activities, like sports and arts programs is restricted due to COVID-19,” said Eva Oberle, the study’s lead author and assistant professor with the Human Early Learning Partnership in the UBC School of Population and Public Health, in a statement. “Our findings highlight extracurricular activities as an asset [to] teens’ mental wellbeing. Finding safe ways for children and teens to continue to participate in these activities during current times may be a way to reduce screen time and promote mental health and wellbeing.”

“We do know that some forms of screen time can be beneficial, like maintaining connections with friends and family members online if we cannot see them in person, but there are other types of screen time that can be quite harmful. There are many nuances that are not well understood yet and that are important to explore,” she added, when noting further research is needed to understand why recreational screen time is seemingly more harmful to girls than to boys.

The findings come after a study in 2019 concluded that depression and suicidal thoughts have doubled in young Americans over the past decade, with cellphones and social media to blame for this rise, the researchers said at the time.

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