Can Screens and Physical Activity Coexist?

by aglowka October 8, 2019 comments

State of Play: Seattle-King County revealed that screen usage is only one factor contributing to low rates of physical activity in King County youth. Lack of adequate infrastructure alongside culturally and economically exclusive programming form the backbone of barriers to participation. 

Even so, data from our survey of over 1,000 King County youth showed strong relationships between screen time and physical activity, organized sport, and outdoor recreation participation. Some key findings include:

  • Physical activity rates: Those meeting the CDC’s guidelines for physical activity (60 minutes, 7 days per week) spend less time on screens during school day than those who are not meeting those guidelines. 

  • Time spent at nearby parks: Spending any time at nearby parks during the month is a predictor of less screen time. Further, youth who go to the park more than once a week spend significantly less time on screens and those who never go to the park spend significantly more time on screens. 

  • Club sports participation: Those participating in club (such as select or travel) sports report less screen time than those participating in any other type of sport (school-based, recreational, or other). 


While there is undoubtedly a connection between screen time and physical activity participation, the reasons why kids use screens instead of playing outside or on sports teams is less clear and warrants additional attention.

  • Screens cost less than sports and keep kids in sight: Some parents struggle with not having safe, low-cost options that don’t involve screens. One focus group participant explained: “Instead of paying $1,500 to $2,000 for one (sport) season, I can buy a $300-$400 Xbox and a PlayStation, and my kid will be at home safe.”

  • Parents value outdoor time, but parks feel unsafe: Ninety-nine percent of parents surveyed reported that it is very important that their child spend time outdoors during the week, but only 53% of youth report going to a park near their house at least once a week. Many youth say their parents won’t let them go, often for reasons of safety. Seventy-two percent of parents have seen behavior they deem “unsafe” at nearby parks, including used syringes and broken equipment. 


Side effects of too much screen time are concerning.

Safe, affordable, and appropriate alternatives to screens are essential for young people everywhere, and the research is clear: Maras, et al. (2015) examined the relationship between sedentary screen time and found it was associated with depression and anxiety in youth. Twenge and Campbell (2018) found that “high users” of screens among those ages 2 to 17 showed less curiosity, self-control, and emotional stability. Twenge, et al. (2018) found a clear pattern among adolescents linking screen-related activities with higher depressive symptoms or suicide-related outcomes. This study also found that all activities associated with lower depressive symptoms or suicide-related outcomes (like in-person social interaction, sports/exercise, homework, and attending religious services) did not involve screens.


Even so, developers are finding ways that screens and physical activity can coexist.

The influx of technology in the fitness and wellness industry may also help incentivize participation in physical activity for both adults and youth. Sullivan and Lachman (2017) acknowledged the role of increasingly popular fitness technology to potentially influence public health, research, and policies, but noted that more research is needed to understand the real impact of this technology’s effectiveness in promoting behavior change. 

Developers continue to leverage technology for wellness in apps for adults and youth alike. University of Washington researchers developed NatureCollections, a mobile app with a goal of engaging youth in an “exploration of the natural world.”  NatureCollections encourages kids to go outside, photograph nature, and curate their photos in collections like plants, birds, and landscapes.


How can you help?

The Aspen Institute (2015) explained that while screens are blamed for kids’ sedentary habits, they provide much of what youth want out of a sport experience: “lots of action, freedom to experiment, competition without exclusion, social connection with friends as co-players, customization, and a measure of control over the activity - plus, no parents critiquing their every move.”

With this in mind, coaches and parents - with the help of policy and regional leadership to promote safe neighborhoods and parks, inclusive sports programming, and low-cost activity - can play a role in making free play just as accessible and attractive as screens. Some examples of this include:

  • Parents: Get to know your neighbors and their kids, and coordinate supervised outdoor free play at open spaces or parks near your home - a free play co-op.

  • Coaches: Remember what kids like about screens—they are easily accessible, provide near-constant engagement, and include structured incentives and incremental rewards. Good sports practices can also look like this.



  • Aspen Institute Sport & Society Program (2015). Sport for all; play for life: a playbook to get every kid in the game [White paper]. Retrieved November 21, 2018 from The Aspen Institute: 
  • Aspen Institute (2019). State of Play Seattle-King County Analysis and Recommendations. Retrieved from
  • Maras, D., Flament, M. F., Murray, M., Buchholz, A., Henderson, K. A., Obeid, N., & Goldfield, G. S. (2015). Screen time is associated with depression and anxiety in Canadian youth. Preventive medicine, 73, 133-138.
  • Sullivan, A. N., & Lachman, M. E. (2017). Behavior change with fitness technology in sedentary adults: a review of the evidence for increasing physical activity. Frontiers in public health, 4, 289.
  • Twenge, J. M., & Campbell, W. K. (2018). Associations between screen time and lower psychological well-being among children and adolescents: Evidence from a population-based study. Preventive medicine reports, 12, 271-283. 
  • Twenge, J. M., Joiner, T. E., Rogers, M. L., & Martin, G. N. (2018). Increases in depressive symptoms, suicide-related outcomes, and suicide rates among US adolescents after 2010 and links to increased new media screen time. Clinical Psychological Science, 6(1), 3-17.