Obesity in Children and Technology

Two boys playing on computer game
The combination of inactivity, increased snacking and lack of sleep resulting from increased screen time can lead to obesity. (Image: Emma Kim/Cultura/Getty Images)

About one-third of American children and teenagers are overweight or obese, making childhood obesity the leading health concern for parents in the United States. Not so coincidentally, the American Academy of Pediatrics has estimated that the average child spends upwards of seven hours watching television, browsing the Internet and playing video games each day. While it’s tempting to turn to technology to help keep your children occupied, too much screen time may instill unhealthy habits that persist into adulthood. According to a review in Obesity in 2012, a lot of screen time may increase obesity risk.

Sedentary Behavior, Obesity and Technology

An increase in exposure to technology goes hand in hand with a decrease in physical activity. As children spend more time sitting in front of the TV or computer, they spend less time outside running around and burning off calories -- and energy. Over time, combined with an increase in snacking, this can lead to significant weight gain.

Technology and Commercials

It’s not just the fact that increased technology use contributes to more sedentary behavior -- it’s also what children are exposed to while they watch TV. According to a report in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association in 2008, nine out of 10 food advertisements shown during Saturday morning children’s programming are for low-nutrient foods that are high in fat, sodium and added sugars. This food marketing largely influences a child’s food preferences and, ultimately, his health. This is partly because, unlike adults, children have a hard time distinguishing between regular programming and advertisements.

Technology Increases Snacking

Increased time spent in front of the television or computer may also lead to increased snacking and mindless eating. A study published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology in 2014 monitored the habits of 1,003 sixth-graders. The researchers found that kids who spent more time in front of a screen -- whether it was a computer, TV or video game -- snacked more often and ate fewer healthy snacks than children who used technology less frequently. Another study, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 2014, concluded that the type of program also influences snacking. More stimulating programs, which a lot of children’s shows tend to be, can lead to a dramatic increase in snacking.

Technology Interferes With Sleep

Having a television in your child’s bedroom increases the impact of TV watching on weight status, independent of physical activity. This may be due to the decreased amount of sleep associated with late-night, unmonitored television watching. A lack of sleep causes an increase in ghrelin, the hormone that signals you’re hungry, and a decrease in leptin, the hormone that tells you you’re full. On average, a sleep-deprived person will consume 300 extra calories per day, usually from high-fat foods, and snack more frequently than someone who is well-rested.

Limit Children's Screen Time

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends children and adolescents spend a maximum of one to two hours in front of a screen, whether it’s a TV, computer or tablet. Encourage your kids to get off the couch by playing with them. Pick an activity that you both enjoy and work up a sweat together. Instead of forcing a new sport or activity on your child, let her pick and make a solid plan to engage. Block off this time and make sure all other distractions -- like your cell phone -- are put away.

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