Technology—specifically that of screen-based devices—is integral to our everyday lives and often provides children with opportunities to learn and grow. But many kids are overdosing on screens in a way that raises their risk of obesity, according to a new scientific statement released by the American Heart Association and published in its journal Circulation. The statement notes that kids' screen time is associated with higher sedentary behaviors (aka any form of lazing around), which can contribute to weight and health concerns.
The statement was developed by a panel of experts who reviewed existing scientific literature from the past 20 years, which was based almost entirely on self-reported screen time. The data didn't nod to what type of device was used, or the context in which it was used, so the studies weren't designed to show cause and effect. Nonetheless, the researchers found that while TV viewing on actual TVs has decreased, the amount of time kids spend viewing content on a variety of other higher-tech devices has made for more screen time overall. Current estimates are that 8- to 18-year-olds spend more than 7 hours using screens daily.
While more research is needed, Tracie A. Barnett, Ph.D., a researcher at the INRS-Institut Armand Frappier and Sainte-Justine University Hospital Research Center, in Montreal, Canada, and the chair of the writing group speculated on the connections between screen time and obesity in an AHA press release: “Although the mechanisms linking screen time to obesity are not entirely clear, there are real concerns that screens influence eating behaviors, possibly because children ‘tune out’ and don’t notice when they are full when eating in front of a screen. There is also evidence that screens are disrupting sleep quality, which can also increase the risk of obesity."
She tells Parents.com that hormonal disruptions that occur without adequate sleep and increased exposure to food advertising that impacts behaviors may be two other factors at play.
It also bears noting that the amount of time parents spent glued to their devices is a main risk factor for kids' screen time, sedentary behavior, and in turn, obesity.
"Parents behaviors will be repeated in the kids," Barnett says. "There are studies that show when there are regulations in the home or when that environ is organized in such a way to limit access to screens, that screen time consumption will go down. In addition, those regulations have to be enforced. These are things that can be discussed as a family. What are reasonable limits to be placed? We're not trying to demonize these screen-based devices, but there are times and occasions that should be screen-free."
In particular, she advocates taking screens out of bedrooms so sleep can be more easily achieved and away from the dining table, so meal time can be about connecting with one another face-to-face. And more time spent outdoors, the better.
Ultimately, Barnett hopes this statement raises awareness of the issue and empowers parents. "I think they have a lot of power and authority over what happens in the household, especially over younger children," she says. "I think their own behaviors can send a powerful message and they may not even be aware of their own excessive screen time sometimes. it feels like an essential tool. All of us can get hooked; it's ubiquitous—almost like an appendage now. But these devices can have these adverse impacts on your engagement with your child, on their social relationships, on the time they spend outdoors, their sleep quality, their diet. The effects are far-reaching and far-ranging, so early on, these habits should be monitored."
Current AAP recommendations state that kids under the age of 18 months have no screen time, and those 18 months to 2 years only participate in video chatting. Additionally, children under 5 should have just one hour of screen time, and those over 6 should have consistent limits.
Similarly, the World Health Organization (WHO) advises no screens in any capacity for children under 1, and no sedentary screen time (like watching TV) in those between ages 1 and 2.