Photo by NEC Corporation of America with Creative Commons license

Nowadays when we knock on the door of a child’s room to check in, we’re likely as not to see her staring at a screen. Is that a good thing? Should we be happier to find the kid reading, singing, or drawing?

These (and many other) questions lie at the heart of “Arts and Cultural Participation among Children and Young People: Insights from the Growing up in Ireland Study,” a 2016 report commissioned by the Arts Council of Ireland. The report attempts to gauge the impact of children’s cultural engagement in the context of our digital era.

Authored by Emer Smyth, research professor at the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI), “Arts and Cultural Participation” extracts and examines data from Growing up in Ireland – the National Longitudinal Study of Children (GUI), a government-funded study conducted from 2006 through 2013. Smyth’s analysis, which draws on the arts-and-culture part of the GUI data, views cultural engagement through a multifaceted prism. Covering a broad age range from early childhood to the throes of adolescence, “Arts and Cultural Participation” weaves seemingly tangential activities like reading, television viewing, and computer screen time into the findings, all while weighing the effects of social disparities in income, education, and cultural access.

Three key findings emerge from Smyth’s analysis of the data:

  • Cultural engagement appears to boost both academic skills and socio-emotional wellbeing for participating children.
  • The availability of school-based cultural activities correlates with extracurricular arts participation.
  • Despite the best efforts of school-based interventions, engagement with culture and the arts varies widely among demographic groups in Irish society.

Casting a Wide Net

Growing Up in Ireland has a longitudinal design – with data gathered from the same subjects at progressive time points – that probes the cumulative effects of various activities in people’s lives over several years. The inquiry follows two cohorts of children: a group of 11,134 subjects recruited at 9 months of age and then surveyed at ages 3 and 5; and a second cohort of 8,568 children recruited at 9 years of age and again surveyed at age 13.

Smyth’s report for the Arts Council analyzes this data with respect to the likelihood of different groups of children to engage in cultural activities, the influence of schools’ emphasis on cultural activities on children’s cultural engagement outside of school, and the relationship between cultural participation, academic skills, and socio-emotional wellbeing. For younger subjects, researchers interviewed primary and secondary caregivers to learn about activities outside the classroom such as creative play and cultural outings. For older children, questionnaires given to principals and teachers tracked structured activities offered in schools – music, drama, painting and drawing classes – as well as more passive pursuits like attending cultural events. Data for the older group also includes interviews with the subjects themselves.

The GUI dataset tracks two sets of outcomes: cognitive development (as measured by standardized tests) and wellbeing (as measured by the prevalence of socio-emotional difficulties). They control for some individual and family characteristics, such as preschool childcare at age 3, but there are no controls for individual personality traits or certain other environmental factors that might have a role in shaping these outcomes. Thus, the findings are arguably not as reliable as would be the case if the study used an experimental design.

That said, there are other reasons to pay heed to “Arts and Cultural Participation.” While we can’t be sure that the outcomes in question follow solely from cultural engagement, the longitudinal nature of the study, with its ability to compare the same people at different points in time, points provides a useful (and relatively rare) companion to experimental inquiries that typically focus on the short-term effects of engagement. Also of note is GUI’s robust sample size (nearly 20,000 subjects) covering a broad and representative cross-section of Ireland’s population. And while there may be some cultural specificity to studying an ethnically homogenous country like Ireland, that makes the consistency of the findings with studies of the value of arts and culture in other countries all the more striking.

What is Culture, Anyway?

Perhaps the most distinctive trait of the Arts Council report is its broad definition of cultural engagement. The analysis incorporates the common pastimes of reading, watching television, and engaging in screen time (including video games) on computers or mobile devices.

The results are telling. Of all included activities, reading gets the highest marks in terms of enhancing both cognition and wellbeing. The report notes that among younger children, “being read to frequently and having more access to books contributes to improved vocabulary.” Unsurprisingly, such children later take up reading on their own. For older kids, “self-directed reading contributes to cognitive development (in terms of both verbal and numeric skills) as well as to academic self-confidence [and] socio-economic wellbeing.” The report cites the country’s relatively high use of libraries and recommends them as places to promote cultural engagement.

In contrast, television viewing and computer screen time yield mixed results: watching more television is associated with improved vocabulary and better reading achievement – but also with greater socio-emotional difficulties. Similar findings emerge for computer screen time. Smyth concludes that television and screen time may “promote verbal skills but at the expense of poorer socio-emotional wellbeing and more negative attitudes to school.” (Interestingly, no attempt is made to single out social media, possibly because at the outset of the GUI study in 2006, it was not as prevalent as it is now.)

Meanwhile, participatory engagement with the arts – activities such as painting/drawing, music or other types of creative expression, and attending cultural events – correlate with improvement in both test scores and socio-emotional wellbeing. These trends are amplified as the subjects age. “Being involved in a structured cultural activity is associated with positive outcomes across all domains,” Smyth writes, “with higher achievement levels, academic self-confidence and happiness, and lower levels of anxiety and socio-emotional difficulties.” However, it’s worth noting that the magnitude of benefits of arts activities was quite a bit less than the positive impacts of reading for pleasure (for pre-teens) or being read to (for toddlers).

Disparities in Access

Which segments of the population actually enjoy the benefits of cultural participation? The data indicates disparities in youngsters’ cultural engagement along several dimensions:

  • Income. Among younger children, “more advantaged families are more likely to read to their child, take them on educational visits and cultural outings, and encourage them to engage in creative play.” Older kids from advantaged families report higher participation in organized after-school activities (which often require payment).
  • Gender. Girls engage more frequently than boys across several categories of arts and culture. E.g.: “Remarkable gender differences were evident in the prevalence of painting or drawing (67 percent of girls did so every day compared with 42 percent of boys) and in enjoying music or dance (73 percent compared with 46 percent doing so every day).”
  • Population density. Living in an urban area facilitates greater access to some amenities such as cultural venues, libraries, and cinema houses. However, the report cites “no significant difference between urban and rural areas” for participatory activities like painting/drawing, reading, and taking lessons in music/dance/drama.
  • Immigrant status. The report cites a “significant difference” between immigrant and native Irish children in involvement in cultural activities in and out of the home, relating this in part to language barriers.

Despite these societal disparities, there’s one place where varied demographic groups can simultaneously encounter arts and culture activities: in school.

The Great Equalizer?

The report reveals a clear correlation between school-based cultural programs and extracurricular participation, both in structured after-school activities and in reading for pleasure. This suggests cultural curricula can offset some of the disparities described above: “school may be the main point of access to arts and cultural activities for many students.”

This effect is apparent even after taking socioeconomic characteristics of individual students into account. Yet Smyth notes that interventions such as Ireland’s Delivering Equality of Opportunity in Schools (DEIS) program, which launched in 2005 to ensure exposure to the arts among disadvantaged students, have not completely corrected the imbalance among different social classes. “In spite of urban DEIS schools’ promotion of cultural activities,” she writes, “their students are much less likely than others to read for pleasure or to take music/drama lessons and are more likely to spend a lot of time watching television or playing computer games.” What is not clear from the report is whether disadvantaged schools with these programs promote higher levels of cultural engagement in their students than schools without the programs would.

All in all, “Arts and Cultural Participation” makes a solid case for the benefits of cultural engagement among young people across all demographics. It points to school-based cultural activities as one means of increasing children’s engagement with arts and culture, even if it’s not a panacea. But while what we traditionally think of as arts activities (painting, drawing, music, etc.) can lay claim to some of these benefits, the most striking finding of the report is the across-the-board value of reading for pleasure, both in early childhood and especially in adolescence. So to answer the question posed at the beginning, if you catch your 13-year-old deep into the latest volume of The Hunger Games, it’s occasion to celebrate.