YouTube is not a sport. Neither are Minecraft or Roblox. A growing cohort of medical experts are calling on parents to cut down their kids’ screentime, and encouraging them get out, get active – and get involved in team sports.
A study published in The Journal of Pediatrics in 2022 found that 24-month-old children who spent less than 60 minutes looking at screens each day and those who engaged in at least 60 minutes of daily physical activity had better executive function than their peers – in other words, the ability to remember, plan, pay attention, shift between tasks and regulate their thoughts and behaviour.
The World Health Organization (WHO), meanwhile, recommends that children and adolescents aged 5-17 should do an average of at least 60 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous intensity physical activity per day. “Unfortunately, the WHO found that fewer than 25% of children are active for more than those recommended 60 minutes day,” says Dr Melanie Dance, a paediatrician at Mediclinic Sandton. “Fewer children are spending an hour a day running around, being active – and consequently, the rate of obesity has skyrocketed since 1975.”
Your child’s brain on exercise
Dr Dance says it’s important that children are active. “There’s this idea that if your child is on a screen all day, they’ll be a computer genius or a bright spark,” she says. “But in fact, the opposite is true.”
She points to a 2022 study that showed if you took a large group of obese children and allowed them to exercise for 60 minutes at a time, three times a week, for a period of five months, their overall intelligence and cognitive flexibility improved.
“The result was increased working memory, increased multitasking ability and increased problem-solving,” she says. “Their academic function increased as a result – and this was not associated with better blood flow to the brain from increased fitness. It was independent of that. The truth is, your child’s brain works better when they’re exercising.”
Social impact of team sport
Any physical activity is good for children, but playing in a team has extra benefits. It helps them to develop many of the social skills they’ll need for the rest of their life – including co-operation, discipline, and collective responsibility. And – if over-invested parents can step away from the touchline for just a second here – team sport also teaches children (and their parents) patience, by making them work with other players who make mistakes or aren’t as talented as they are.
An Australian study published in 2013 by Victoria University confirmed these benefits of participation in sport for children and adolescents. “There were many different psychological and social health benefits reported, with the most common being improved self-esteem, social interaction followed by fewer depressive symptoms,” the study authors wrote.
“Sport may be associated with improved psychosocial health above and beyond improvements attributable to participation in physical activity. Specifically, team sport seems to be associated with improved health outcomes compared to individual activities, due to the social nature of the participation.”
It all starts, though, with stepping away from the screens. “As doctors and parents, we need to address this issue,” says Dr Dance. “The more time our children spend in front of a screen, the less time they're spending running around, climbing trees, playing games, and so on. We need to rethink how our children are spending their time.”