Limit Kids’ “Screen Time” and Restore their Health
This year, obesity will pass cigarette smoking as the #1 preventable cause of death in the United States, and children now are almost as frequently obese as their parents. The leading villains in this epidemic: television and video games. Pediatricians and psychologists urge parents, “Kids have got to get their butts off the couch and get outside to play. Not optional. Required.”
Gerri Minshall, Australian child development specialist and fierce advocate for good old-fashioned outdoor play, characterizes excessive screen time as a triple threat for obesity: ''You're more likely to eat in front of the TV, you're exposed to greater food marketing, and you're not moving for a long period of time,'' she says. ''Nothing else is as easy to do for three or four hours.'' Minshall also notes the prevalence of food-related content in child-oriented programs, and she stresses manufacturers of salty, sugary, and fatty snack foods dominate advertisers on kids’ programs. She and her colleagues blame television and video games for frightening spikes in early onset of cardio-vascular disease, diabetes, and depression.
In Australia, the average school-age child watches approximately three hours of television each day; in the United States, the number more than doubles to 6.8 hours. In many cases, children spend more time in front of television screens and computer monitors than they spend in classrooms. “Remember when kids played outdoors until long after dark?” Cheryl Lynn Morell, MD, pediatrician at Kaiser Permanente in San Diego, asks rhetorically. “Recent studies show the average American school-age child plays outdoors less than three hours per week.” Dr. Morell draws a sharp contrast, “In other words, a child plays outdoors in a week less than half the time he watches television in a day.” Expressing the contrast more dramatically, Dr. Morell specifies, “The average kid spends less than 1% of his free time playing outdoors. Less than 1%,” she repeats.
Minimize health risks. Maximize benefits of play.
Of course, parents play crucial roles in determining and regulating children’s viewing habits, and child development experts have identified best practices for parents who want to assure their children do not develop “square eyes.”
• Set and enforce strict viewing rules. In order to minimize friction, parents sit down with their children and make lists of their favorite programs including the days and times they air. Then, they pare-down the lists to the kids’ very-very favorites, shrinking the viewing schedule to no more than two hours per day. Parents mandate their children must watch these programs in the living room or family room, where they can supervise viewing; and they stipulate that children cannot eat while they watch television. Once the list is complete, negotiations are over; no changes or substitutions, and no whining.
• Cellphones are hazardous to teens’ health. Whether or not they pose radiation risks, cellphones pose obesity risks almost as serious as television and video games. The first controlled studies of teens’ texting recently have appeared in prestigious medical and psychological journals, and the numbers stun and worry professionals. In one suburban high school, the average student exchanged more than 300 text messages per day and devoted at least four hours each day to social interaction via cellphone or computer messaging. More than half the students said they preferred texting to face-to-face communication, and several reported they had sustained boyfriend-girlfriend relationships “entirely” by text messaging. “I guess the kids developed strong thumbs,” Dr. Morrel quips, “But their bodies and brains surely suffer from lack of exercise.”
• Rediscover the great outdoors. Many parents mandate outdoor play and participation in organized youth sports during the two or three hours right after school. For four generations, statistics have demonstrated the value of participation in sports, and the numbers are now more compelling than ever. Athletes typically have higher grade-point averages than their couch-bound classmates; they also have higher graduation and college attendance rates, and they have higher self-esteem. One statistic stands-out especially clearly: Among women CEO’s in America’s 1000 largest companies, over 80% of them played high school sports. The path to the executive suite apparently leads across the playing fields.
• Set a good example. Parents who exercise have children who exercise. Concerned her swimmers were not getting enough off-season conditioning, one Ohio coach organized “mother-daughter mornings” on which her athletes and their moms walked together for an hour before school and then shared a healthy breakfast. The coach reported participants in her experiment not only improved their event times but also their grades, and the moms became ardent swim fans.
Dr. Morrell does not mince words. “Fire ‘the electronic babysitter,’ because she is making your children fat, wheezy and sad,” she declares. Smiling, the doctor shares an old trick: “My mother once spread 95 pennies around our back yard and then told my sister and me we could not come indoors until we found all one hundred of them. We quickly forgot about the pennies, but we stayed outside all day.”
Author Stephanie Sanders is a communications consultant and writes for a UK mobile phones site, offering all the latest phones and plans.