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Screen Time and the Childhood Obesity Epidemic

Approximately 20% of adolescents in the U.S. today are obese or overweight. With the number of obese and overweight younger children close behind, this epidemic has lasting implications for the future.

“The difficulty really comes in that once an adolescent is obese they more than likely will remain obese into and through their adulthood. There is no easy fix. It takes time, hard work, and a drive to change habits that have been established for a long time,” says Garry Sigman, MD, a pediatrician and obesity expert at Loyola University Health System and associate professor of pediatrics at Loyola University Chicago Stritch School of Medicine.

The physical implications of obesity are vast and dangerous. It is a major risk factor of numerous health problems, including cardiovascular disease, skin problems, orthopedic abnormalities, diabetes, and cancer. Just as scary is the psychological and emotional impact obesity has on children and adolescents.

“Obesity in children can lead to a feeling of inadequacy and isolation. Even as young as 5 years old, children can be stigmatized by their peers. This can result in depression or suicidal ideation, especially among adolescent girls. Since food can be comforting, the child may turn to or may already have turned to food to feel better. This is a very circular problem and so when dealing with obesity the whole child—mind, body and soul—need to be addressed as well as their environment,” says Sigman.

In working with children, Sigman has found that a child’s environment and social-cultural factors play an even larger role than genetics in their development of the disease.

“Genetics do play some role in whether a child will become obese, but the dramatic numbers and steady increase that we have seen can’t be contributed to genetics alone,” says Sigman. “What’s happening is our lifestyle is not only causing more people to become obese, but the [body mass indexes] of a larger part of the population are higher. So, even those who are not genetically prone to the disease are becoming obese.”

Some non-genetic behavioral risk factors for children include:

• Mother who is obese or diabetic
• Mother who smokes
• Bottle feeding on a schedule vs. breast feeding on demand
• Too much screen and sedentary time
• Not enough sleep
• Portion size of food
• Unhealthy snacking including where, when and what a child eats
• Not getting enough physical activity
• Not eating enough healthful foods, including fruits and vegetables

Many of these factors are linked to a common feature of modern youth lifestyle—too much screen time. According Sigman, there is a direct correlation between time spent in front of a screen and number of patients who are obese.

“Unsupervised TV watching is terrible for kids. It has a hypnotic effect that causes us to move less and burn fewer calories. Eating in front of the TV is made worse by ads for food that makes people of all ages have the desire to eat more, even if not hungry,” says Sigman.

We move more when we are reading a book or even playing a video game, so both are better than watching TV, says Sigman. Getting away from the screen and really moving are integral to battling the obesity epidemic and needs to be priorities of parents.

“Parents need to limit their children to two hours of screen time at home a day,” says Sigman. “This needs to be a rule and one that’s enforced. It’s time consuming for parents and it’s a lot of hard work, but it really could be a factor in whether you have a healthy child or not.”

Screen time also impacts a child’s sleep, which is another risk factor for obesity. Sigman says there should be no television in a child’s room. And close to bedtime, there should be limited access to computers, cell phones, video games, iPods, etc.

“Children and adults need less stimulation before bed to allow their bodies and their minds to wind down before going to bed. It’s important to include downtime into a child’s schedule to ensure a child is getting enough sleep,” says Sigman. “In addition to screen time, parents should limit a child’s vigorous exercise and loud music close to bedtime.”

Still, Sigman believes it goes beyond the family to whole communities making changes to really make a dent in the epidemic.

“We need to create safe places for kids to play outside. Safety is a real issue for parents,” says Sigman. “Though organized sports are wonderful, they aren’t for all kids. Kids need free play. They need to be able to run and ride their bikes, but if there aren’t sidewalks or safe playgrounds, kids are stuck inside on a computer or in front of the TV.”

— Source: Loyola University Health System