Recent years have seen a shift in children’s pastime activities, with outdoor, physically active, unstructured and unsupervised play often replaced by indoor, relatively inactive, structured and adult-led activities. This change is attributable, in part, to the decrease in perceived ‘safe’ play spaces, the rise in technology-based activities (screen time) for children and the proliferation of adult-led, structured cultural activities such as arts classes, or music lessons and sports activities, like soccer or GAA (Singer, Golinkoff and Hirsh-Pasek, 2006; Elkind, 2008; McCoy, Byrne and Banks, 2012). Many authors have raised concerns about the potential impacts of these changes on children’s health and wellbeing (Gray, 2011; Tremblay et al., 2011, 2015). This study aims to examine the relationship between children’s pastime activities and children’s socio-emotional wellbeing. The relationship between adverse life events and outcomes are also investigated.

Methods

Using data from the child cohort (age nine) of the Growing Up in Ireland longitudinal study (Williams et al., 2014), bivariate and regression analyses were conducted to investigate the relationship between screen time, organised leisure time activities (OLTA; structured cultural activities and sports activities), adverse life events, and socio-emotional outcomes, as measured by the Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire (SDQ; Goodman, 1997) and the Piers-Harris Children’s Self-Concept Scale (Piers, Harris, and Herzberg, 2002). Differences and mediating effects were explored using a range of individual child, parent, family, and community variables.

Results 

Amongst this cohort watching television was the most popular screen time activity; the majority of parents (66%) reported that their child watched one to three hours of television per day on average. Most children (78%) were enrolled in one or two organised activities, but girls attended a wider variety of activities. Sports and fitness clubs were the most popular activity (75%), followed by cultural activities such as dance, music, arts and drama (47%). The majority of children have experienced at least one adverse life event during their life time (78%). 

Children engaged in high levels of screen time and those not enrolled in any OLTA had more behavioural difficulties (higher SDQ scores) on average. There was no significant association between screen time and SDQ scores, but children not enrolled in any OLTA reported lower self-concept (Piers-Harris) scores on average. Children who had experienced more adverse life events scored below their peers in terms of socio-emotional well-being. While screen time, participation in OLTA and the experience of adverse life events could explain some of the variance, child and parent characteristics were stronger predictors of SDQ and Piers-Harris scores.

Conclusion

The results highlight the importance of adopting a holistic and bio-ecological model to explore the dynamic factors that impact on children’s wellbeing. Bivariate analyses suggest that excessive screen time, no participation in OLTA and a high number of adverse life events are adversely affecting children’s socio-emotional wellbeing. However, regression analyses suggest that the child’s characteristics and temperament as well as relationships with family and peers are exerting greater influence on outcomes. Thus, the data reaffirm the centrality of everyday relationships in providing social support systems and the ‘ordinary magic’ (Masten, 2001) that helps children to thrive and build their resilience. Further analysis is needed to investigate the relationship between screen time, OLTA, adverse life events, and the relationships between the child and their surroundings. The broader socio-cultural contexts and their influence on the nature and quality of family relationships, decision making, perceived norms and ideals also needs further enquiry.