Is social media really to blame for the great youth sports epidemic?

For generations sports have been used to keep children in shape both physically and mentally. Sports, of course, offer a fun recreational activity, but they also help build real-world skills like teamwork, communication, overcoming challenges, and perhaps most importantly, learning how to lose. 

Certainly sports don’t have a monopoly on educating the youth, but they have long served as a valuable vehicle for growth for many. Unfortunately, youth sports are witnessing declining rates of participation across many parts of the world.

Decline in youth sports participation

Across Latin America, social and racial discrimination often impedes youth participation in sports, which, besides all the other negative consequences, results in a more sedentary lifesyle for kids. Among Latin American 11-17 year olds, 84.3 percent engaged in physical activity to an insufficient level, according to a 2016 report by The Lancet. Rising levels of obesity among the youth further exacerbates existing health and socio-economic concerns that contribute to declining participation. 

In the U.S., participation in team sports among six to 12 year olds fell from 45 percent to 38 percent between 2008 and 2018. The average American child plays sports for less than three years and quits by the age of 11. At the same time, youth sports fees are rising and the majority of school budgets are decreasing or stagnating. While the challenges facing U.S. youth sports might differ, the more physically inactive youth are, the more we will see an increase in health problems such as obesity. 

In Europe, participation in youth sports is witnessing similarly troubling trends, with both males and females increasingly dropping out around the age of 14. “Overall participation across sports using a longitudinal track approach” should be the focus of any sport policy, concluded an EU-commissioned report from 2021, covering the years 2017-2020. The report added that this policy should specifically prioritize retention. 

How can we reverse the trend of declining youth participation in sports?

Leveraging social media 

Technology, and more specifically smartphones and social media platforms, likely contribute to the declining participation rates. Some 75 percent of teens globally use social media regularly, and in Latin America, the rate is 83 percent. Social media and other online activities will only continue playing a major part of kids’ lives, but this presents a unique opportunity for youth sports organizations to leverage the tech to boost youth enrollment in sports.  

Youth sports leaders shouldn’t limit kids’ social media use—that’s a losing battle. Rather, they should tap it to help young athletes better connect and identify with their team and the sport.

Youth leagues, organizations, and teams should speak with their target audience in its own language and invest in building a social media presence to which their players can relate. Youth sports already need to get creative to compete for kids’ time and attention. Coaches and parents shouldn’t fall into the “social media or sports” dichotomy—rather, social media can translate into more engagement.

Youth sports bodies can broadcast their games live on social media and post short clips or player highlights to give young athletes the thrill of social affirmation and make them feel like their favorite pro stars. This type of encouragement builds confidence and helps the budding athletes self-motivate, which will prove useful in all aspects of life. 

Sure, youth social media consumption has its inherent and undeniable downsides. But encouraging more physical activity is a must at this point, and leveraging social media’s appeal to young athletes will undoubtedly incentivize them to stay in the game.

Kids spend more time on their phones than on the field or playing outside, and this lifestyle is nothing short of a health crisis unraveling right before our eyes. Besides helping to mitigate this crisis, sports introduce kids to teamwork, communication, and resilience. Young athletes learn to persevere through difficulties, push themselves to do better, win with grace and get back on their feet after losing. These benefits are intangible but, without a doubt, real and impactful throughout one’s life. 

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