Screen Time and Children: How Much Is Too Much?

TV obesity children health
Source: Wikipedia Creative Commons

How much screen time is too much for a child? I’m not worried so much about movie time as I am about the total amount of hours kids spend on TV shows, iPads, laptops and the rest. Most of us instinctively feel that too much of anything is unhealthy, but exactly how bad is screen time? There’s a lot of research with both kids and adults that may stir up some interesting family discussions — hopefully not over a TV dinner. Here’s some scary data to munch over:

  • For each additional hour of TV watched on weekends at age 5, the risk of adult obesity increased by 7%.
  • In New Zealand, average weeknight TV-viewing between the ages of 5 and 15 years was strongly predictive of adult BMI.
  • In a study of 8000 Scottish children, viewing more than 8 hours of TV per week at age 3 was associated with an increased risk of obesity at age 7.
  • In 8000 Japanese children, more TV-viewing at age 3 resulted in a higher risk of being overweight at age 6.
  • A study of 2343 children aged 9 to 12 years revealed that having a bedroom TV set was a significant risk factor for obesity, independent of physical activity.

You’ve probably heard of the American Academy of Pediatric’s official position on total screen time: no child under 2 years old should have any screen time at all, and children of later ages should have a maximum of 2 hours “non-educational” screen time. Again, that includes videos, TV, Youtube and all the rest. How does your family compare? And are you setting a good example as a parent, or do you meet or exceed the American average of 5 hours a day of TV?

There’s a great debate brewing that some screen time is better than others, but no matter what, if your child is sitting in front of a screen, here’s what they’re not doing:

  • Asking questions
  • Solving problems
  • Being creative
  • Exercising initiative
  • Practicing eye-hand coordination
  • Scanning (useful in reading)
  • Practicing motor skills
  • Thinking critically, logically, and analytically
  • Practicing communication skills
  • Playing interactive games with other children or adults (helpful for developing patience, self-control cooperation, sportsmanship)

It’s also never a good idea to have a TV in a child’s bedroom. Studies have found increased obesity; rates of smoking later in life; lower test scores; and sleeping problems. Another official policy statement from the American Academy of Pediatrics, called “Children, Adolescents, Obesity, and the Media”, showed strong evidence that TV watching leads to weight gain and all the troubles this causes as adults — diabetes, heart disease, and arthritis, among many other illnesses.

Children who did not adhere to these American Academy of Pediatrics guidelines of less than 2 hours/day of screen time and 11 000 to 13 000 pedometer steps per day were 3 to 4 times more likely to be overweight. Preschool-aged children who ate dinner with their parents, got adequate sleep, and had limited screen-time hours had a 40% lower prevalence of obesity than those exposed to none of these routines. I recommend that parents read the PDF file here, and then have a healthy discussion with your kids!

In closing, I think no matter how dazzled we are by new technology and app claims of “education” and “interaction”, it’s still a passive activity preventing a host of healthier venues of learning, especially independent play time. To quote another AAP doctor, “in today’s ‘achievement culture,’ the best thing you can do for your young child is to give her a chance to have unstructured play—both with you and independently. Children need this in order to figure out how the world works.”

This article was initially published in my monthly Beijingkids column. Click here for my Beijingkids archive.

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