The pros and cons of your coloring books obsession

Story highlights

  • Coloring books can offer health benefits for adults and children, experts say
  • But it might be beneficial to draw your own lines, too

(CNN)Coloring books are no longer just a child's pastime. Adult coloring books are a thing now too.

In fact, coloring books for all ages have become more popular than ever, with about 12 million sold in the United States last year, according to new data from Nielsen BookScan. Only one million were sold in 2014.
    The trend of more adults turning to coloring in an effort to de-stress has contributed to this rise.
    But exactly what benefits -- or potential disadvantages -- does swapping out a beach read for a coloring book offer both children and adults alike? Some researchers agree that while coloring books may be beneficial for mindfulness and reducing stress, it's probably better to draw instead of to color to boost creativity.
    Still, very few studies have been conducted to evaluate that question, according to Shannon Bennett, co-director of the Weill Cornell Pediatric OCD, Anxiety, and Tic Disorders Program at NewYork-Presbyterian.
    "This is important for the field to explore and more research is needed," Bennett said. "This phenomenon is increasing in popularity and is somewhat new and the focus seems to be around stress."

    Creating your own lines

    Most of us can trace our first encounters with coloring books to childhood, whether you were adding color to your favorite superhero, a beloved storybook character, or stars and planets.
    However, researchers and parents are now scratching their heads about whether this pastime offers educational or even health benefits.
    "I would say that for a child, coloring books are more likely to engage children's creativity and active enthusiasm," said Dr. Richard House, a psychologist who has authored many books on childhood development and psychotherapy, including "Too Much, Too Soon? -- Early Learning and the Erosion of Childhood."
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    "Whereas for adults," he added, "they are far more likely to have a stress-reducing effect, giving adults a pleasant vehicle for escaping, for a short time at least, from the manic, time-poor lives that we increasingly lead."
    House noted that while coloring may be a healthier creative outlet for children than computer games, for instance, there are varying types of art-making that can offer different benefits.
    "Children engaging in any kind of artistic activity has to be better than them not so doing," he said. "But there are different qualities of artistic activity, and all things being equal, it is far more nourishing and empowering for children to draw and paint from out of their own being, rather than in accordance with pre-decided lines and drawings that limit the child's opportunity to create art out of their own creative process."
    Even Wendy Woon, the deputy director for education at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, wrote in an article for New York Daily News last month that coloring books may stifle creativity in not only children but also adults. It may be more beneficial to use your imagination to create your own lines instead of drawing within lines that are already there, she noted. An effort to contact Woon for comment was unsuccessful.
    Whether you create your own lines or not, scientists have long known that creating art -- whether it's building pottery or coloring in a book -- may have some health benefits, from easing pain to reducing stress.
    Now, a small study has shown some insight into just how this stress reduction occurs.

    How art can reduce stress

    "Expressing ourselves through art can significantly lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol in our bodies," said Girija Kaimal, assistant professor of creative arts therapies at Drexel University and co-author of the study.
    "One of the things that many adults in the study commented on was that they have had no opportunities to engage in art-making as adults," Kaimal said. "This is an unfortunate and sad part of our current Western and modern life. We are separated from the everyday arts activities we engaged in when we were a less modernized society."
    For the study, 39 adults who ranged in age from 18 to 59 were asked to participate in a 45-minute task where they could choose to color, play with clay, or create art collages.
    Just under half of the participants described their art experience as "limited."
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    The researchers discovered that about 75% of the participants' cortisol levels in saliva samples lowered during the art task. Before the activity, levels of the stress hormone among the group ranged from 32.4 to 5.05 nanograms per milliliter of saliva. But afterward, saliva levels dropped to a range from 25 to 5.01 nanograms per milliliter.
    The researchers also noticed a weak association between changes in cortisol levels and age, in which the younger study participants were more likely to experience a drop in cortisol levels than older participants.
    "It is just as likely that we would see changes in children as well," said Kaimal, who also serves as chair of the research committee for the American Art Therapy Association. "It is a study we are looking to do in the future."