Study: cross-sectional associations of screen time and outdoor play with social skills in preschool children

Posted by Megan Forse on February 19, 2019

As we continue to understand the benefits of outdoor active play, and the consequences of screen time, research is expanding to explore the influence of outdoor play and screen time on specific areas of children’s health and development.

A recently published study in PLOS ONE titled “Cross sectional associations of screen time and outdoor play with social skills in preschool children”.  discusses the relatively unexplored link between screen time and outdoor play on social skills. 

One of the first studies investigating the influence of physical activity on social skill development in the preschool ages, Hinkley et al., use the Adaptive Social Behaviour Inventory (ASBI) to assess children’s social skills on three subsets: Express (eg. joins play, is open and direct), Comply (e.g. cooperates, is calm and easy going), and Disrupt (e.g. teases, bullies). Mothers reported their children’s time spent in each of the following activities: television/DVD/video viewing, computer/electronic game/hand held device use; and, outdoor play time. Associations were recorded between the preschool children’s social skills and the amount of time they spent in front of a screen, or outdoors. 

Results show: 

  1. Children’s television/DVD/video viewing is inversely associated with their compliant scores.  
  2. Outdoor play time is positively associated with both expressive and compliant scores. 

Study findings suggest children’s higher levels of screen time and lower levels of outdoor play time are associated with poorer social skills, most prominently poorer compliant skills. 

Although a lack of evidence exists for causal mechanisms explaining the link between children’s screen time, outdoor play, and social skills, hypotheses have been presented. For example,  play and physical activity provide children with opportunities for interaction, allowing them to develop skills in cooperation and conflict management. Spending time engaging in screen-based behaviours may also limit a child’s opportunity for peer and adult interaction (Varni et al., 2013).

Evidence for the mechanisms explaining the link between increased screen time, decreased outdoor time, and decreased social skills in preschool children could provide a foundation on which to implement guidelines or interventions aimed at preventing the negative affects of screen time on social skills in preschool children.