Screen time and your children’s health

04.23.14 |

Negative consequences for children's health from screen time

Recently, Reuters highlighted a study published in JAMA Pediatrics that found a correlation (not to be confused with causation) between children spending more time in front of screens and poor wellbeing.

This is not necessarily a new idea or a new line of research. In fact, the Reuters piece notes that other studies have also observed that screen time—on cell phones, computers, televisions—could have negative consequences for children’s health, specifically their quality of sleep and their weight.

But before we begin to assign blame, consider these comments from the authors of the studies:

“We really need to do a little bit more digging in this area before we can answer some of the basic questions,” Trina Hinkley, a research fellow at the Center for Physical Activity and Nutrition Research at Deakin University in Melbourne, said when asked by Reuters Health what specific factors might explain the link between screen time and poor wellbeing in children.

“At this point we can say there is an association but we cannot say exactly why,” said Stacey Tiberio, the lead author of a study that found a link between monitored media use (television and video games) and lower rates of obesity.

How television viewing can affect our children’s health—and even our health as adults—is complicated because of a variety of variables.

To start, watching television often means watching commercials, and commercials often feature sugary cereals, candy, alcohol, and promotions for fast food chains. Repeated exposure to these advertisements could lead to you later making unhealthy eating choices. Furthermore, the content and delivery of television programming can contribute to hyperactivity, depression, a lack of selective attention, and negatively impact sleep patterns.

Alternatively, if you are playing on Facebook or trying to rescue Princess Peach in the latest edition of Mario, you probably aren’t going for a walk or participating in any other number of healthy activities in that time.

At young ages, when we are quite impressionable, it’s not surprising that the habit of watching television for hours a day later extends into adulthood. Coming home and sitting down on the couch only to move when we crawl up the stairs to bed can easily become our routine, our way of life. When you establish this pattern in children, learning that challenges with obesity and all of its inactivity-related health complications are a consequence should not be a shock.

Watching television is not inherently unhealthy; it’s how we choose to structure our lives around television viewing and what extended television-viewing exposes us to. Video games are not inherently unhealthy either. In fact, some studies suggest that video games can actually have health benefits like enhanced problem solving. But eating chocolate has health benefits, too. Just like eating too much chocolate can create health problems, so too can spending too much time parked in front of a screen.

Instead of barring your children from using computers or playing video games, focus on helping them create a lifestyle that champions healthy activity. Encourage them to play outside. Encourage them to pick up hobbies that involve physical activity, like basketball or soccer. If they are indoors, encourage activities like playing with Legos or drawing to keep them from getting sucked into a marathon of reruns.

If you can lead them to a life of variety, where they are just as interested in shooting hoops with friends as they are in shooting bad guys in a video game, you can help them to avoid Habits of Disease and instead build Habits of Health that last.