Screen Time and Obesity
As an overweight child, I experienced living in the shadows—the shadows of my "friends" choosing sides on the playground for basketball games, and never picking me—the shadows behind the opened gym locker doors where girls would snicker and boys would make rude comments—the shadow side of myself, never allowing my light to shine; who would want to call attention to this mass of flesh? The emotional pain of being the "fat girl" far outweighed my physical limitations.
But by high school I had grown tall, lost baby fat and played on the girls' basketball team fairly proficiently. The boys still make rude comments about my body—but now they were of a different nature. I was at a normal weight, feeling energetic and healthy—for a while at least.
Adulthood brought back the battle of the bulge and ushered in a depth of physical pain and discomfort. I am not sure how I got through as I look back on those years. Two decades of serious illnesses followed the birth of my sons. Healing took lots of focused attention, competing for time with my precious boys, and of course healing and recovery time with alternative therapies because traditional methods weren't working—what was wrong with me? A lot. Gallbladder problems—it had to be removed. Liver problems; poor digestion; insulin resistance. Childhood obesity does increase the risk for adult health problems. I know this first-hand.
My mother showed she loved her kids by feeding them too many Polish and Italian rich foods; too many desserts. But we always played for hours outside—by day walking in the woods collecting leaves, twigs, and flowers to make things with; by evening running wildly, catching fireflies in the summer or playing tag after dinner on school nights. We went outside, rain or shine, no matter how cold or hot, there was always some time moving in the backyard, even if it was only five minutes, to throw dry bread to sparrows looking for food in the five feet of an unexpected spring snowstorm. I am so thankful now that exercise was in my childhood equation. As an adult, I don't loathe physical movement like many of my friends do. I look forward to it. It's what saved me.
Through my own tenacity and the good fortune to find the appropriate health care providers, I am now blessed with great health. Although I will never be a size 8, I can at least walk/jog two-three miles daily, lift weights, do Yoga and Pilates and go on the occasional five-mile hike. I can even bend down and touch my toes, something some kindergartners can't even do.
That's right. I was shocked when a colleague told me that 22 of her 27 kindergartners could not touch their toes. Imagine little five year-old bodies struggling and failing to do this simple act—tragic.
Many of today's children have too much of the wrong foods as a factor for their out-of-shape condition—fast food packed with calories and lacking nutrition is one distressing example. But another significant factor in the current alarming rise of childhood obesity is the time youngsters spend sitting in front of a TV, video game or computer. They are not moving enough throughout their day.
The average modern child spends nearly 45 hours a week with television, movies, the Internet, cell phones and video games. By comparison, children spend 17 hours a week with their parents on average and 30 hours a week in school. (1)
Probing childhood obesity, researchers found that in 173 studies over the past three decades, 86% found a statistically significant relationship between increased media exposure and an increase in childhood obesity. 82% of the studies concluded that more hours of media predicted increased weight over time. A longitudinal study of 5,493 children reported that those who spent more than eight hours watching TV per week at age three were significantly more likely to be obese at age seven. (2) Dr. Ezekiel J. Emanuel of the National Institutes of Health, one of the participating agencies in the study, points out that "this review is the first ever comprehensive evaluation of the many ways that media impacts children's physical health. The results clearly show that there is a strong correlation between media exposure and long-term negative health effects to children." (3)
You can download the Executive Summary of the report (PDF) and read all the specifics. It is an extremely important study for parents, educators, and policy makers to know about.
Another significant study showed that a substantial percent (almost 36%) of US preschool children exceeded the American Academy of Pediatrics' (AAP) recommendation to limit media time to 2 hours or less per day. (Please note: I believe the AAP should have a stronger recommendation for preschoolers by stating no more than 30 minutes daily of TV/DVD/computer use.) The study concluded that interventions to prevent and treat obesity in preschool children by reducing TV/video viewing are warranted. (4)
Yet, by age 12 months, the average baby is watching television about one hour per day, despite the AAP recommendation of no screen time before age 2. (5) This is not the parents' fault because most moms and dads—indeed the vast majority of them, do not know about the AAP's recommendation. With the popularity of Baby Einstein videos, a lot of parents think they give their infants a head start by exposing them to these DVDs, when in fact the opposite is true. For more information about babies and screen time, please see an article I wrote for the Parent Coaching Institute titled "When Should Children Begin Watching Television?" When the child begins a daily habit of sitting and taking in visual images from a 2-D, flat surface, the child can easily come to want increasing amounts of screen time and less time in 3-D reality playing and moving. The more time in front of a screen, the more likely the child will become obese and develop serious health problems as a result. In fact, the odds of having hypertension increases by 26% for each hour of TV watched per day. (6)
All of this is sobering news. Yet, there is hope on the horizon if parents take this information to heart. The daily decisions parents make begin to add up on the side of lots of positives for children's optimal health when screen time is reduced and other appropriate activities are increased.
Making a change, even a small step in the right direction, goes a long way to improving children's well being and their future adult health, as well.
Parents, begin today to reduce screen time and do more of:
- Eating together as a family.
Kids make healthier food choices when they eat with mom or dad! One research study even demonstrated that families who eat dinner together with the television off eat more fruits and vegetables than those who eat separately or eat a family dinner with the television on. (7)
- Exercising together as a family.
Family bike rides, hikes, walks in a local park or other movement activities not only support the child's or teen's needs for movement but also provide powerful models for valuing exercise as an integral part of daily life.
- Giving your child/teen opportunities to exercise.
Perhaps it's not safe for the kids to go outside by themselves? Jumping rope in the garage, bouncing on an old re-bounder or shooting hoops right outside the kitchen window with the lights on are ways to think "out of the fear box," keeping kids safe and at the same time encouraging movement. But also give children and teens time outside as you can. A great place to get good ideas is www.greenhour.org. Sponsored by the Wildlife Foundation, this site is described as "the parents' place for nature, play, and learning" with lots of terrific ideas for family outdoor activities. Yes, we can use screen-machines in the service of our children's optimal health!
- Media and Child and Adolescent Health: A Systematic Review, Conducted by Yale University School of Medicine and National Institutes of Health and California Pacific Medical Center, November 2008.
- "Television viewing, computer use, obesity, and adiposity in US preschool children," Jason A Mendoza, Fred J Zimmerman, and Dimitri A Christakis, International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity, September 25, 2007.
- "Television Viewing and Hypertension in Obese Children," Perrie E. Pardee, Gregory J. Norman, Robert H. Lustig, Daniel Preud'homme, Jeffrey B. Schwimmer, American Journal of Preventive Medicine, Volume 33, Issue 6, December 2007, Pages 439–443.
- "Positive Effects of the Family Dinner are Undone by Television Viewing," P. Fitzpatrick, et. al., Journal of the American Dietetic Association, April 2007.
Gloria DeGaetano is CEO and Founder of the Parent Coaching Institute. For information about Gloria's keynotes and workshops, please contact Gloria DeGaetano by phone at (425) 753-0955 or at info@GloriaDeGaetano.com.
Copyright © 2009 Gloria DeGaetano, all rights reserved. No reprinting rights granted without the author's permission.