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Children from disadvantaged backgrounds spend less time reading and exercising, study shows

Children from disadvantaged backgrounds are spending less time reading and engaging in physical activity as they grow older, a new study reveals.

They are also spending less time than their peers playing sport and exercise as they get older.

Researchers first examined overall trends in children’s time use from the age of nine to 13 from across the entire island of Ireland.

The team examined how children’s time use changes as they grow up.

The research was based on diary data from the Growing Up in Ireland survey.

They measured children’s activities at age 9 in 2007 and 2008, and again for the same children when they were aged 13 in 2011 and 2012, focusing on the after-school period on normal school days.

They found that compared to 9-year-olds, 13-year-olds are less likely to engage in sport/physical exercise and reading.

In contrast, 13-year-olds are more likely to engage in homework, media (such as TV, video games, music, and social media), and family activities.

The Queens University Belfast researchers next looked at the family background of the children and found substantial differences in sports, reading, homework, and playing time depending on their socioeconomic status (SES).

At the age of nine, girls from high SES backgrounds spend seven more minutes each day reading than girls from low SES backgrounds.

At age 13, girls with high SES backgrounds spend 17 more minutes each day on sports/exercise.

Boys show the same SES differences for reading and sports (with more time spent in these categories for those with high SES), with an additional difference in homework at age 13.

The researchers also studied whether the differences in background that they saw were more closely tied to family income or education.

They found that the strongest associations are between mother’s education and children’s time use.

The exception was that family income plays an important role in differences in time spent on sport/physical exercise, though only for boys.

Dr Slawa Rokicki, Instructor at the Rutgers School of Public Health at Queens University said: “How children spend their time has important implications for their emotional, social, and cognitive development, and consequently for their future.

"Activities such as sports and exercise promote growth through the development of attention, self-regulation, and self-esteem, and also foster healthy behaviours.

“If children from disadvantaged backgrounds do not have equal access to opportunities to participate in these activities, then they are not being supported in achieving their full potential.

"As well as impacting on the children themselves, this also has implications for the widening socioeconomic inequalities in society as a whole."

The research also points to the timing of when inequality in time use emerges among children, which suggests the age at which any intervention should be targeted.

The researchers at the Management School of the University highlighted that gaps in reading by children in disadvantaged backgrounds are already present at age 9, which implies that interventions to reduce this gap need to occur before this stage.

In contrast, inequality in girls’ sports time only emerges at age 13, which suggests efforts to reduce the gap should take place between ages 9 and 13.