Child’s Play: The Surprising Gender Gap in Children’s Leisure Time

In many countries, there is a marked difference in the free time enjoyed by boys versus girls. Photo: ADB
In many countries, there is a marked difference in the free time enjoyed by boys versus girls. Photo: ADB

By Milan Thomas, Madhulika Khanna

As the world commemorates International Youth Day, governments should consider targeted policies, and cultural changes, to address the differences in leisure time among girls and boys.

If there are children in your life, you have given thought to how they spend their free time. When England was industrializing in the 18th and 19th centuries, idleness in children was seen as a path to vice, and part of the role of schools and child labor was to prevent them from getting up to no good. 

In the 20th century, there was a sociological shift in advanced economies, and a recognition that education must be universal and child labor as hazardous to child development. But concerns remained about how children’s leisure time was spent (especially with respect to television) and continue today as  worries have shifted to children’s time spent on social media and video games. Recently, the People’s Republic of China made news by considering a two-hour daily time limit on children’s smartphone use. 

Children’s time use in developing economies is an emerging field of study, and a dimension on which it is important to investigate differences between genders.  A balanced daily routine, with time for study, sleep, and play, is important for children’s learning, social development, and mental health.

We dug into the Young Lives Longitudinal Dataset, from the University of Oxford, for Andhra Pradesh (a state in India) and Viet Nam to investigate the extent to which girls face a disadvantage in leisure time, as they do on other important dimensions, such as access to nutrition and education resources.  

The study collected time use data from co-resident children (siblings or cousins), providing a unique opportunity to compare girls and boys time use while putting aside household socioeconomic factors (such as location, wealth, and education of the parents) that influence children’s time use. 


The findings for these two developing Asian economies were striking, though not surprising. Girls enjoy less play time than their male counterparts. While the size of this gap varies (relatively small at 12 minutes per day in Andhra Pradesh and quite large at 38 minutes per day in Viet Nam), it emerges from an early age in both settings (seven years old in Andhra Pradesh and six years old in Viet Nam) and persists as children grow older. 

One expected finding was that girls are more likely to be leisure-poor (meaning that they have combined sleep and play time that puts them in the bottom quartile for their age group) at all levels of wealth. In fact, the gap in leisure poverty is largest in Andhra Pradesh for the richest households - showing that gendered differences in leisure poverty will not be closed by reducing income poverty. 

The source of the leisure deficit for girls is different in the two settings. In Viet Nam, girls have less leisure time largely because they study more. In Andhra Pradesh, the leisure gap is smaller but apparently more harmful because it is due to a higher burden of housework for girls. The emergence of the leisure gap from an early age and its consistency across wealth distribution confirms that the gendered domestic workload imbalance and the factors that underlie it are deeply entrenched in Andhra Pradesh.

International Youth Day presents an opportunity to reflect on what can be done to address this ubiquitous gender disparity. Sustainable Development Goal target 5.4 is to promote “shared responsibility within the household and family” for unpaid care and work. Without addressing the gender imbalance in leisure among young girls, progress towards this goal will be limited, and recent improvements in girls’ access to education will not translate to labor market outcomes.

Any policies and programs to address the gendered leisure gap must intervene early in family life across all socioeconomic groups. Studies on gendered time poverty suggest that the provision of local infrastructure investments (electricity, transportation, sanitation, water supply) may narrow the gap by reducing the demand for housework in many developing settings. Cultural norms that favor sons interact with the lack of such public goods to exacerbate gendered time poverty. 

Thankfully, a growing volume of research shows that cultural norms are not immutable, even over short time horizons.  A recent study finds that a social campaign engaging children in discussions about gender equality led to more progressive attitudes.

Understanding the effect of such interventions on time use is critical for encouraging shared responsibility for domestic labor.

This post is based on a recent study in the Journal of International Development.