Today’s Tips for Parents: TV and Obesity

The more kids watch TV, the more likely they will be overweight.

In my clinic, when talking about weight challenges with families, I know my parents have heard this association over and over again.

Parents often reply, “We get it.”

Even though my families have clearly heard this message before, I am not always sure parents understand why our kids are gaining weight when they watch too much TV.

A new Policy Statement from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) further explains how the association between hours of time in front of a screen (TV, computer, smartphone, video games, etc.) and an increase in a child’s BMI (body mass index, or a measurement of obesity) is more than just sitting on the couch.

The Statement details 3 different ways that screen viewing is thought to contribute to weight gain. The knowledge of these theories may help families develop guidelines to monitor screen time in their homes.

1.  Time with media may result in obesity because of its effect on sleep habits.

This is a big one.

Poor sleep is known to be a risk factor for obesity. Why?

Theories include:

  • Sleep loss leads to increased snacking during the following day to maintain energy.
  • Sleep loss leads to increased fatigue the following day and subsequently more sedentary activity choices.
  • Kids who sleep poorly have metabolic changes that could increase fat deposition.

A study in adolescents discovered that when kids watch excessive TV (defined as 3 or more hours per day), the risk of difficulty falling asleep doubles. This is a big deal because we all know that the amount of time that teens have to sleep (due to the social, academic, and athletic commitments they pursue) is rarely adequate. Limiting the barriers to making sleep time a productive, restful sleep could make a big difference in teen's daytime performance. And, better sleep may have the long-term benefit of maintaining a healthier weight.

Teens are not the only age group of concern. A recent article in Pediatrics has shown sleep disruption and decreased quality of sleep in preschoolers with poor screen time habits. In the study sample, the researchers demonstrated a significant delay in sleep onset (the time it took for the preschoolers to actually fall asleep) and an increase in daytime tiredness. For the preschool set, poor sleep leads to behavior issues, accidents, parental stress from sleep loss, and weight gain.

ACTION STEPS:

  • No TV (or internet access via handhelds) in your child’s room. Ever.
  • Make TV a daytime activity, not a way to “wind-down” or "get to sleep."
  • Keep the nighttime routine sacred with regular bedtimes (even in summer and on vacation,) quiet reading time, and dim lighting.

2.  Time with media may result in obesity because of unhealthy eating habits and the effects of advertising.

Did you know that an excess of just 50 calories per day will create a weight gain of 5 pounds over the course of one year? Just 50 calories!

That is just:

  • 2/3 of a regular Oreo cookie
  • 10 pistachios
  • 2 Hershey’s Kisses
  • 1/2 banana

Junk food itself if not the issue. Although eating unhealthy snacks is certainly not optimal, eliminating all treats is not realistic and not effective. But, monitoring absent-minded intake does make a difference.

It has been suggested that eating food while watching TV effects our body’s ability to tell us that we are “full.” Others researchers suggest that constantly seeing advertisements for junk food makes us crave it. Not shocking news, knowing that the food industry spends billions of dollars to get us and our kids to eat their stuff.

Bottom line is that kids need snacks, but snacks need to be regulated and intentional.

ACTION STEPS:

  • TV and phones should be off at meal time.
  • Limit snacks to designated snack times. No “mindless” eating in front of the screen.
  • Snacks should be eaten off a plate. No eating out of the box or bag.
  • Do you have a DVR? Think about forwarding through the advertising sections on common TV channels.

3.  Time with media may result in obesity because its displacement of more active pursuits.

Sitting on the couch is certainly part of it. Watching a screen is a sedentary, or inactive, pastime. And, we know that weight gain most commonly happens if the balance between gaining calories and using calories is not equal.

Time surfing the internet, playing video games, and watching that favorite Disney movie can really add up.The AAP currently recommends no more than 2 hours of screen time per day. Actually, I think that recommendation is quite liberal.

I’ll duck and cover, now. Please don’t throw sharp objects.

Think about it. Two hours per day, 7 days a week... at the end of a year that adds up to 728 hours of screen time. Or, over 30 continuous DAYS in front of a television screen.

Yikes.

ACTION STEPS:

  • Make minutes of active playtime equal “media cash.” For example, every 2 minutes of active playtime, your child can earn a minute of screen watching. So, that hour of soccer practice can be “cashed in” for a 30 minute age-appropriate media time.
  • When watching TV, make it an intentional family activity. Choose the show together. Watch. Discuss.
  • Have the goal be no more than two hours of screen time per day for all family members.
  • Make screen time active time by using WiiFit and other active video gaming.

Parents and pediatricians alike are concerned about today’s kids being overweight.

Simple steps can help parents and kids make better choices to fight obesity.