A mounting body of research is showing that kids' media use may be linked to their weight, partly because the sedentary act of watching television and movies or playing on computers and mobile devices can displace other activities that burn more calories.
But too much media exposure can also affect children's weight in other ways, according to a new policy statement from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), "Children, Adolescents, Obesity and the Media." The statement appears in the July 2011 issue of Pediatrics (published online June 27).
According to the statement, ads for junk food and fast food increase kids' desire for these foods. Studies also have shown that snacking increases while watching TV or movies. And late-night screen time can interfere with sleep, which puts kids at higher risk for obesity.
"We've created a perfect storm for childhood obesity - media, advertising, and inactivity," said the statement's lead author, Victor Strasburger, MD, FAAP, a member of the AAP Council on Communications and Media. "American society couldn't do a worse job at the moment of keeping children fit and healthy - too much TV, too many food ads, not enough exercise, and not enough sleep."
The statement contains recommendations to help pediatricians mitigate the effects of media on children's and teens' body weight, including:
- Encourage parents to discuss food advertising with their children as they monitor children's TV viewing and teach them about good nutrition.
- Continue to counsel parents to limit total, non-educational screen time to no more than two hours per day, and avoid putting TV sets and Internet connections in children's bedrooms.
- Work with community groups and schools to implement media education programs in classrooms, child care centers and community centers.
- Be aware that children with high levels of screen time also have more stress, putting them at risk not only for obesity but for a number of other conditions such as diabetes, mood disorders and asthma.
The policy also recommends that pediatricians work with other child health advocates at the local, state and national levels for:
- a ban on junk food advertising;
- restrictions on interactive food advertising to children via digital media;
- funding for research into the health and psychosocial effects of heavy media use in children; and
- more prosocial media platforms and resources for children that encourage them to choose healthy foods.
"Thirty years ago, the federal government ruled that young children are psychologically defenseless against advertising. Now, kids see 5,000 to 10,000 food ads per year, most of them for junk food and fast food," said Dr. Strasburger.
The AAP has long recommended that pediatricians ask two questions about media use at each well-child (or well-adolescent) visit: How much time is the child spending on screens each day? And is there a TV set or Internet connection in the child's bedroom?
"Having the conversation around these two questions can go a long way toward a thoughtful approach to each family's - and each child's - media use, and that can quickly translate into healthier choices and healthier weight," Dr. Strasburger said.