Adolescent Sports Participation & Mental Health

Mother and daughter playing soccer
April 23rd, 2019 0 Comments

Hunter Bennett

Did you know that over the last decade we have seen a huge increase in mental health disorders such as depression and anxiety?

Well, we have.

Even worse is the fact that these same increases have not only been observed in the adult population but in children and adolescents as well.

Terribly, this has also come with a marked increase in suicide risk.

With this in mind, there has been an abundance of research looking into some of the ways we can improve adolescent mental health, and in doing so, stave off depression and suicide – and interestingly, the sport appears to offer a fantastic solution.

Adolescent depression and suicide rates are rising

Children’s mental health statistics have shown that suicide rates in children and adolescents have been steadily increasing over the last two decades (Kolves, 2014; WHO, 2014).

In short, the problem is reaching near epidemic proportions.

As I am sure you can imagine, this increase in suicide rates has come with a rather sharp decline in general measures of mental health and wellbeing.

In this article, I want to outline some of the research touching on why we may be seeing these declines, and obviously what can be done to improve upon it.

So, without further ado.

Related Article: Do Children Perform Better In Sports Based On Coach’s Gender?

The rise in mental health problems

Childhood and early adolescence is a time of great change. A time of finding out who you are, and where you fit into society.

It is arguably one of the most trying times in your life.

Which is also why it is such a hot spot for the development of mental health disorders.Kids kicking soccer balls

Most serious mental health disorders begin to present themselves during childhood and early adolescence. In fact, it has been estimated that more than 50% of all adult mental health disorders occur before an individual turns 18 years of age (Das, 2016).

As if dealing with depression and anxiety isn’t enough, poor mental health during this time has shown strong associations with increased risk of teenage pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases, domestic violence, abuse, motor vehicle accidents, physical violence, crime, and of course, suicide.

It is not good.

How social media and screen time contribute to poor mental health

So, you might be wondering what has been contributing to such large declines in mental health – and there is some pretty interesting research around both screen time and social media use.

First and foremost, there is a growing body of evidence clearly demonstrating that children who watch more TV are at a much higher risk of developing depression and anxiety than those who do not (Twenge, 2018; Stiglic, 2019).

Interestingly, this relationship appears to be dose dependent – which pretty much means that the less TV they watch, the better their mental health tends to be.

But what is even more interesting is how social media affects mental health.

You see, there is some terrifying research clearly showing that social media use directly increases sensations of anxiety, declines in mood and wellbeing, and an increased risk of depression, in both children and adolescents (Pantic, 2014).

It is important to note that some of this research has indicated that the earlier a child starts to use social media, the worse its effects are – so keep your kids off it for as long as possible.

How decreases in leisure time helps improve mental health

It may sound a little bit counterintuitive, but children who have less leisure time tend to have better mental health than those who have more time available for leisure activities – interestingly, this also appears to result in a markedly reduced risk of suicide (Vancampfort, 2019).

It is thought that those children who have more free time available to them, tend to spend that time performing sedentary activities (which often results in screen time).

This tends to correspond with a decline in sport participation, which leads to our next point quite nicely…

How sports participation helps

One of the key factors that tend to correspond with less leisure time (and consequently, better mental health) is sports participation.

To put it simply, those children who play sport have less time to pursue sedentary leisure activities – which is a very good thing.

Additionally, sports participation also provides the perfect opportunity to get in some healthy social interaction, which has been shown to positively contribute to improved mental health even further (Ho, 2017).

As a result, it should come as no surprise that those children and adolescents who actively participate in sports tend to have better mental health than those who do not.

Again, this corresponds to a significantly reduced risk of suicide (Vancampfort, 2019).

Does exercise play a role in depression and suicide rates in children?

Last but not least, I wanted to touch on exercise.

Exercise has long been considered to be one of the best ways to improve mental health, period.

Performing exercise has been shown to boost mood, improve general wellbeing, and stave off feelings of stress and anxiety. Hell, exercise has even been shown to cause physical changes in the brain they can cause lasting improvements in mental state (He, 2018).

All of which contribute to a reduced risk of depression, and a lower risk of suicide (Vancampfort, 2018).

Related Article: Children & Relative Age Effect

Parental exercise influence on children

While we are on the topic of exercise, I wanted to discuss some very interesting research showing that parents can actually increase the exercise levels of their children by simply exercising themselves (Cleland, 2005).

To put it simply, parents who exercise more, tend to have kids who exercise more.

This means that as a parent, you can have a direct and immediate influence on your child’s mental health by actively choosing to role model good exercise habits. This will cause an increase in their exercise levels, which will lead to subsequent improvements in their mental health.

Pretty cool really!

What are the signs of mental distress in children?

You now know what can contribute to both good and poor mental health in children and adolescents – but how can you tell if your kids are suffering from mental distress?

Because I take it that you might be wondering about signs of suicide in children or the potential signs of depression in children.

And fortunately, there are some key warning signs that you can look out for. These include:

  • Poor or reduced performance at school.
  • Your child feeling chronically bored or unhappy.
  • Frequently complaining about headaches and stomach aches.
  • Poor sleep quality, or frequent nightmares.
  • Reduced appetite.
  • Behavior regression, such as bedwetting, throwing tantrums or becoming clingy.
  • Becoming increasingly aggressive.
  • Taking more risks, and showing less concern for their own safety.

While this list does not provide a way to diagnose a mental health disorder, it does provide some insight into the things you need to look out for if you think your child is suffering from any sort of mental distress.

Exercise and leisure time tips for parents

Taking all of the above into consideration, you can ensure your child’s mental health by increasing their activity time and decreasing their sedentary leisure time. Here are some of our top tips to make this possible:

  • Attempt to perform some sort of exercise (or active play, in younger children) with your kids every single day.
  • Make sure that you actively role model exercise and physical activity for your children, to promote good exercise habits.Father teaching daughter to play tennis
  • Encourage sport participation.
  • Try and limit electronic screen time to a maximum of an hour per day.
  • Try and keep your children off social media for as long as possible.

While these tips are very simple, they also happen to be very effective.

In this manner, they can give you some insight into what to do if your child is feeling depressed or even suicidal. Of course, always seek advice from a professional if you are unsure.

Take Home Message

Over the last 20 years or so, we have seen a serious decline in the mental health of our young children and adolescents. Scarily, this decline has also come with a significant increase in suicide rates.

Something needs to change, and fast.

Fortunately, you as a parent are not powerless.

Increases in sports participation and exercise, in conjunction with reductions in screen time, social media, and sedentary leisure time, have all been shown to stave off suicide risk and keep your kids mentally healthy.

So keep them active, and it will keep them happy!


Kolves, Kairi, and Diego De Leo. “Suicide rates in children aged 10–14 years worldwide: changes in the past two decades.” The British Journal of Psychiatry 205.4 (2014): 283-285.

World Health Organization (WHO). Preventing suicide: A global imperative. World Health Organization, 2014.

Das, Jai K., et al. “Interventions for adolescent mental health: an overview of systematic reviews.” Journal of Adolescent Health 59.4 (2016): S49-S60.

Twenge, Jean M., and W. Keith Campbell. “Associations between screen time and lower psychological well-being among children and adolescents: Evidence from a population-based study.” Preventive medicine reports 12 (2018): 271-283.

Stiglic, Neza, and Russell M. Viner. “Effects of screentime on the health and well-being of children and adolescents: a systematic review of reviews.” BMJ open 9.1 (2019): e023191.

Pantic, Igor. “Online social networking and mental health.” Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking 17.10 (2014): 652-657.

Vancampfort, Davy, et al. “Leisure-time sedentary behavior and suicide attempt among 126,392 adolescents in 43 countries.” Journal of affective disorders (2019).

Ho, Frederick Ka Wing, et al. “A sports-based youth development program, teen mental health, and physical fitness: an RCT.” Pediatrics 140.4 (2017): e20171543.

He, Jian-Ping, Diana Paksarian, and Kathleen R. Merikangas. “Physical activity and mental disorder among adolescents in the United States.” Journal of Adolescent Health 63.5 (2018): 628-635.

Vancampfort, Davy, et al. “Physical activity and suicidal ideation: A systematic review and meta-analysis.” Journal of affective disorders 225 (2018): 438-448.

Cleland, Verity, et al. “Parental exercise is associated with Australian children’s extracurricular sports. Participation and cardiorespiratory fitness: A cross-sectional study.” International Journal of Behavioural Nutrition and Physical Activity 2.1 (2005): 3

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