The amount of time spent watching a screen (TV, computer, smart phone) has been linked to obesity among both adults and children.
Obesity and Screen Time
As a parent, you are probably aware of many of the factors which contribute to childhood obesity. You know that drinking sugary drinks is bad. You know that activity and exercise are good and important. And you probably know the importance of fresh fruit and vegetables.
What you may not know is the correlation between screen time and childhood obesity.
Screen time includes more than just TV time. It includes video gaming, computers, tablets and smart phones. Television viewing among youth in the United States has doubled in the past 30 years. Some studies in children and teens suggest that computer, video game, and Internet use are associated with excess weight. There are now more overweight and obese adults in the U.S. than adults of normal weight. According to the Centers for Disease Prevention and Control, the percentage of 6–11-year-old children in the United States who are obese is about 18 percent in 2012, up from 7 percent in 1980.
Just the Facts
There are four main ways
in which TV or screen time contributes to childhood obesity.
- Less activity. It is hard to know which is the chicken and which is the egg. Children and teenagers who use a lot of media may tend to be more sedentary in general, or, children who tend to be sedentary occupy their time with TV and other media. In either case, there is a correlation.
- More snacking. Children and teenagers who watch more TV tend to consume more calories or eat higher-fat diets, drink more sodas and eat fewer fruits and vegetables. Snacking is something to occupy one’s hand and mouth while watching TV.
- More exposure to marketing. A study of the 30 highest-rated programs among 2-5-year-olds showed that a child could be exposed to more than 500 food references per week. Half of those commercials are for empty-calorie or high-fat, high-sugar and/or high-salt foods.
- Diminished sleep. Teenagers need more sleep that adults, yet often get less. There is evidence that later bedtimes and less sleep may be associated with a greater risk of obesity. Teens with three or more hours per day of TV-watching have twice as much trouble falling asleep compared with adolescents who watch less than one hour per day.
Watch Out!Have you heard your parents complain about the amount of time you spend watching TV or on the computer, staring at your smart phone or gaming? It may seem to you like they just don’t get it – because they probably don’t.
If your parents are between 30 and 50 years old, they didn’t grow up with cell phones. They had just a few TV networks with sitcoms, dramas, news and game shows. If they had a computer with games on it, they may have been limited to Oregon Trail, which was great for learning about axel weight and dysentery, but is nothing like the games that exist today.
In short – what you watch and enjoy today is in a league of its own. That is both good and bad news. Good news because it’s way more fun. Bad news because it can make you fat. Watch out! TV/computer/gaming/smart phone/screen time can be hazardous to your health.
Prove It.There are many researchers quietly working on studies and tests and methodologies related to the growth and development of children and adolescents. Those researchers have discovered that:
You may have heard of “brand placement” in movies and on television. Brand placement is when a company pays the movie or TV producers some money to put a product into the movie footage. So, Jamie Foxx puts on a pair of Nike’s in White House Down. ET follows a trail of Reese’s Pieces. 007 grabs a Heineken in Skyfall.
- Screen time makes it harder for you to fall asleep at night (and thereby groggy in the morning).
- Screen time takes away from activity time, making you less active overall.
- Screen time puts you on the receiving end of more marketing messages from the producers of junk food, snacks and unhealthy food choices.
- Screen time often becomes snack time. You may eat even though you’re not even hungry.
These product placements are being used to influence your food preferences and purchasing patterns. Researchers studied 200 movies made between 1996 and 2005 in which 1,180 brand placements were identified. Candy (26%) and salty snacks (21%) were the most common food items and sugar-sweetened beverages (76%) were the most popular beverages. These product placements are in addition to the commercials which you may not be able to skip when watching certain programs.
It’s not a coincidence that you get thirsty or hungry when watching movies or television.
There are other troubling facts related to childhood obesity and screen time.
- For each additional hour of TV watched on weekends at age 5, the risk of adult obesity increased by 7 percent.
- Forty percent of 1-5-year-olds have a bedroom TV, and those who do are more likely to be overweight or obese.
- Viewing three or more hours of TV doubled the risk of trouble falling asleep among adolescents, compared to those who had one hour or less of screen time.
Following the Doctor’s Advice
The American Academy of Pediatricians (AAP) has recommended specific screen time limits, depending on the age of the child or adolescent.
The AAP also recommends that pediatricians ask parents two questions at every check-up or wellness visit: (1) How much screen time is the child spending per day? and (2) Is there a TV set or Internet connection in the child’s bedroom?
- 18 months or younger: Avoid use of screen media other than video-chatting (Skyping with grandparents or a deployed parent for example).
- 18-24 months: Choose high-quality programming and watch it with your children to help them understand what they’re viewing.
- 2-5 years: Limit screen time to one hour per day of high-quality programs (i.e. Sesame Street and educational programming).
- 6 and older: Place consistent time limits for time spent on combined media sources.
What You Can Do
The good news is that you can help your child either lose weight or maintain a healthy weight by limiting screen time and promoting other activities.
Preventing childhood obesity goes beyond moving more and eating less. By limiting screen time, you’re also preventing your child’s risk of obesity.
- Bedrooms off limits for TVs. Remove the TV from your children’s bedrooms and all screens off limits at bedtime. Teenagers, who are often sleep-deprived, are tempted to text message, Facebook, surf the web or in other ways stay awake longer than they should. Place a basket or drawer in the kitchen or den where smart phones, laptops and notepads “sleep” every night.
- Be a role model. The gen eration of people who use smart phones the most during meal time is Baby Boomers (1946-1964), followed by Generation X (1965-1980). Work to spend media-free time with your children and you all benefit from the interaction.
- Designate media-free times. Make meal time or drive time media-free times. Bedtime should always be free of screens.
So, all that screen time can contribute to obesity. If you’re overweight, you can look at your screen time and determine if you’re overdoing it. Here are some signs that technology is taking over your life:
- You miss parties and other events. Maybe you stayed home from an activity to make sure you didn’t miss the last episode of The Walking Dead.
- You stay up late to catch a favorite show. Or maybe you went out with friends, and then stayed up even later to catch the most recent episode of The Daily Show.
- You eat meals in front of the TV or computer. Perhaps your entire family eats meals with the TV on.
- You go to bed with the television on. This means you often wake up to see an illuminated screen too.
- You’re texting even after you’ve gone to bed. Not only that, you stay awake waiting for return texts.
So, if any of these descriptions fit your actions, you could have a bit of reprogramming in your future.
The following actions will be good for you, and good for your entire family. Convince your parents to support you and encourage them to follow your lead as you make the changes below.
Make a goal of having no more than 1-2 hours of TV/screen time per day. Your energy level and waistline will thank you for it.
- No screen time during meals. Talk to each other instead.
- No TV in the bedrooms. That goes for parents too!
- Put your cell phone to “bed” at night in a location other than your bedroom. If you need an alarm – use a clock, not a phone. Or, mute your phone and put it somewhere in your bedroom where you can’t reach it unless you get up and out of bed.
- Record your favorite TV shows and watch them during the weekend. You can fast forward through the commercials.