Tradeoff for Kids Who Play Video Games Instead of Going Outside

Kids are spending too much time glued to screens instead of going outside these days, or so the story goes. But does this wariness of video games and similar activities hold up scientifically?

According to new research from Queen’s University, it might. A recent survey asked 20,122 Canadian students in grades 6–10 about how much time they spend playing sedentary video games, playing active video games, and playing outdoors.

The study also looked at participants’ life satisfaction, levels of emotional problems, and prosocial behavior to see if how the students spent their free time affected any of these mental health dimensions.

What emerged from the data was that playing outside was associated with better mental health scores than playing active video games, which was in turn better than playing sedentary video games.

Specifically, spending an hour every day playing active instead of sedentary video games correlated with 6 percent lower odds of having high emotional problems, 4 percent higher odds of having high life satisfaction, and 13 percent higher odds of engaging in high prosocial behavior.

On the other hand, spending an hour everyday playing active video games instead of going outside was associated with a 7 percent higher probability of having high emotional problems, a 3 percent lower probability of having high life satisfaction, and a 6 lower probability of engaging in high prosocial behavior.

One thing to keep in mind is that the research didn’t look at causality. So it could be that playing outside makes kids happier, it could just be that happier kids play outside more, or it could be some combination of the two. But the results do show that playing outside and playing more active video games seem to be associated with higher life satisfaction and more prosocial behavior.

Does this mean kids shouldn’t play video games at all? The research isn’t making any claims that sweeping. It does suggest, though, that it might not be good for children’s and teens’ mental health when video games start interfering with opportunities to go outside and do something more active.