The average American child spends seven hours a day in front of a screen-that’s roughly one-third of their waking time either in front of a TV or a computer, and all that screen time could be adding up to poor health.
The trend toward more time in front of the tube or online is not surprising given our increased reliance on technology for entertainment and communication. However, negative health effects are many, and include weight issues, impaired attention, and even increased aggression. There’s also the problem of exposure to negative stereotyping and risky behavior such as unprotected sex, drug use, and heavy drinking.
The relationship between increased screen time and childhood obesity has been solidified by recent research. A study led by Dr. Barbara A. Dennison and published in 2002 in the Journal Pediatrics found a preschooler’s risk of being overweight increased by six percent for every hour of television watched, and the risk increased even more dramatically if the child had a TV in their bedroom.
Of course it’s not only the lack of activity that promotes higher weights amongst screen-glued kids, but also the commercials that encourage unhealthy eating through promotion of high-sugar and high-fat foods. Frequent commercials can trigger artificial hunger in children through suggestion, leading to more snacking on junk foods.
But an increased risk of becoming overweight isn’t the only problem. Research is also showing that there can be potential problems related to normal development. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) now recommends that kids under two years old not watch any television and that those older than two watch no more than one to two hours a day of quality programming.
The recommendations are based on research that suggests that brain development can be negatively affected by television and other forms of technology if introduced too early. Television itself doesn’t cause the problem; rather, the more time children spend viewing screens, the less time they spend playing and interacting with caregivers, which has proven to lead to improved verbal and social development. And as children get older, increased TV and computer time often replaces important activities such as outdoor play and sports, which serve to keep kids fit.
So what’s the solution? Since moderate television viewing isn’t the real problem, parents don’t need to be overly strict. The problems occur when children have no limits around watching TV or using technology.
Parents should consider the following strategies:
- Keep TVs out of kids’ bedrooms. This naturally tends to minimize the number of hours spent watching television. Putting TVs in communal spaces will give parents more control of time spent watching, as well as the content of programming.
- Parents should also consider having a “No-TV” policy during mealtimes. Not only will this discourage distracted overeating, it will also allow for more meaningful interaction between family members.
- It is also a good idea for parents to be an example to their kids, limiting adult TV watching time. Try modeling other healthy leisure activities, such as reading and engaging in sports.
- Last, parents should consider treating television and computer time as a privilege rather than as an automatic right. Let kids know that these privileges are issued as rewards for good and healthy behaviors both at school and at home.
By setting the right tone in the home, parents can appropriately control the exposure their children have to TV and computer time, which will help curb the issues that arise from excessive screen time.
Image via Donnie Ray Jones