Weight issues in childhood are an enormous problem for our country. The numbers are staggering. 12.5 million children and adolescents are overweight. This number has tripled over the past 30 years. And, as we know, overweight children are at much higher risk of developing some serious adult health issues, including diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol.
As these statistics grow, the media has been paying more attention and you have likely heard about some efforts to combat the problem. Michelle Obama has been at the forefront, launching her “Let’s Move” campaign. There has also been government funding to our schools, improving the food available to students. The funds are partly aimed to upgrade cafeteria equipment. The types of food available in school vending machines and snack bars are also becoming more nutritious as well.
Television viewing is another contributor to the problem. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends limiting your child’s time in front of a screen to less than 2 hours per day. This includes all TV, all video games, and all computers. Research has shown that school age kids watch 3-4 hours of TV per day, and when games and computers are added in, the number goes to 5-7 hours of screen time per day. I think this is an amazing statistic. The only activity that a child spends more time doing than watching TV is sleeping!
The evidence is mounting that as you increase number of hours of screen time, a child’s body fat % and risk of obesity increases. There has been a controlled study showing that decreasing screen time is linked to decreasing BMI (body mass index—a measure of body fat based on height and weight) and decreasing waist circumference.
So, how does TV increase your child’s risk of being overweight? There are multiple factors. An obvious one is that if he/she is watching, he is not exercising. However, research hasn’t been able to reproduce data that shows that if TV viewing is limited, more time is spent exercising. It has been shown, though, that by decreasing sedentary activity both weight and BMI decrease.
TV viewing has been shown to shape children’s food preferences. Kids see an average of 15 TV advertisements per day on food and beverages, with the majority being low on nutrition and high on fat, sugar and salt. This exposure increases requests for those foods. It has been shown that overweight kids are more likely to be responsive to these advertisements.
Just recently, a panel published some strategies for decreasing the negative effect of TV and a child’s weight. First and foremost eliminate TV from the child’s bedroom. This will drastically reduce the # of hours of screen time and might help promote healthy sleep habits, which overweight children commonly suffer from. Second, no TV while eating. This will decrease screen time and hopefully increase the child’s awareness of how much he has eaten. Also, learning about healthy diet and exercise in school could play a major role in educating the kids.
I always tell my patients that I am a perfect father only when sitting on my stool in the exam room. My kids, ages 4 and 7, definitely watch more TV and play more video games than they should. Thankfully, neither has a weight problem. We try to use screen time as a reward and make a point to get out of the house and be active. A lot of families, however, do not have the resources to get their kids involved in sports, dance classes or even have a safe place to play outside. TV is cheap entertainment and the foods that are advertised are easy to obtain and taste good.
I, as well as pediatricians across the country, have to counsel overweight kids and their family daily on the health risks associated with weight gain. The problem is multi-factorial, but TV and screen time play a large role. It is up to us as parents to monitor how much and what types of screen time our kids are exposed to, hopefully setting them up for healthier and happier lives.
All information given is not a substitute for the advice of your pediatrician, primary care provider or trained health professional. Always consult with your pediatrician or health care professional