Authors: Danusha Jayawardana1, Nicole Black1 and Gawain Heckley2


1Centre for Health Economics, Monash Business School, Monash University, Caulfield East, Victoria, Australia.

2Health Economics Unit, Department of Clinical Science, Lund University, Lund, Sweden.


Researchers at Monash and Lund Universities investigated differences across socioeconomic status (SES) in cognitive skills and mental health of 7,500 Australian children and adolescents aged 4 to 14, and how children’s time use contributes to explaining these differences using detailed time-use diary data. Results show low-SES children spend more time on digital media and less time on cognitively stimulating out-of-school activities, organised or for leisure, and this difference contributes about 4% to the observed SES gap in numeracy skills.

Children born into low socioeconomic status (SES) families tend to experience poorer educational and mental health outcomes than those born into more advantaged families. Despite substantial public investments in education and health, the SES gap in early childhood persists as children grow into adulthood.(1,2) Various factors contribute to this SES gap, including genetics, the impact of preschool experiences, parenting styles, and how much time parents spend with their children.(3–6) However, what remains unknown is whether children’s own time allocation can effectively narrow these SES gaps in human capital.

This study addresses this important question in three steps.  First, it explores whether there are SES gaps in cognitive skills and mental health difficulties during childhood and adolescence. Second, it examines how high-SES children spend their time differently from low-SES children. Third, it investigates how differences in children’s time use contribute to the SES gap in cognitive skills and mental health difficulties.  SES classification is based on the measure of socioeconomic position – a composite score derived using family income, educational attainment and occupational status of parents.  This score is categorised into terciles, with the top and bottom terciles representing high and low-SES, respectively.

Findings show a significant SES gap of more than 0.5 standard deviations in cognitive skills and mental health difficulties from age 4, which persists throughout childhood and into adolescence, up to the age of 14.  Moreover, low-SES children spend their time differently from high-SES children. They spend more time on digital media, particularly passive media like watching TV, while spending less time on out-of-school educational activities (e.g. homework and tutoring/music lessons) and leisure activities that are generally cognitively stimulating (e.g. board games and reading).

These differences in time use explain about 4% of the SES gap in numeracy skills. This implies that if children from low SES backgrounds invested 35 minutes more per day on educational activities or cognitive leisure instead of on digital media, then the numeracy SES gap would be 4% smaller at any given age. This contribution is more pronounced for boys and older children. When considering the cumulative impact that could be achieved through sustained narrowing of time use gaps throughout childhood, the differences in time use have the potential to explain nearly 8% of the numeracy skills SES gap by age 14.

However, switching out digital media for non-educational activities, including physical exercise, does not reduce the SES gap. No clear results are found for the impact of time use on literacy skills and mental health outcomes.

These findings suggest that interventions to shift children’s time away from digital media towards out-of-school education activities and cognitive leisure could help reduce the SES gap in human capital.

For more information, see the working paper:


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