The new analysis of 29 studies looked at several interventions designed to reduce screen time, including education on the problems linked to too much TV, counseling, use of media diaries to log TV time, reward systems, and efforts to increase physical activity. Overall, there was a small but significant reduction of screen time seen with these interventions, the study indicates. The study appears in the July 2011 issue of Pediatrics.
“There is a change in the amount of time of TV being viewed, but what we don’t know is if this change results in a change in weight or health status,” says study author Dayna M. Maniccia, DrPH, a clinical assistant professor in the department of health policy management and behavior at the University of Albany in New York.
“We know that there is an association between TV and higher weight and poor nutrition habits, and any decrease in TV viewing will have a snowball effect,” she says. “Media is so pervasive, so even a small change is a step in the right direction.” Today, media use or screen time includes TV as well as computers, cell phones, iPods, MP3 players, video game players, and other mobile devices.
What Works, What Doesn’t
After reviewing many interventions, Maniccia is able to cherry-pick some of the most helpful methods for parents who want to reduce their children’s viewing time and encourage a healthier lifestyle.
“Model good behavior,” she says. “Children who watch too much TV have parents or other family members who watch too much TV. Make family time about something other than watching TV.”
Other successful interventions included TV budgets and TV alarms or timers, which can be as simple as using an egg timer to make sure kids don’t watch more TV than they should.
“Keep TV watching down to 1 to 2 hours a day, and don’t put a TV in the children’s bedroom,” she says.
Kids, TV, and Obesity
Victor C. Strasburger, MD, chief of the division of adolescent medicine at the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, says that too much TV time affects risk of weight gain and obesity in many ways. He co-authored a policy statement in the same issue of the journal.
“When you are watching seven hours a day of media, you are not outside playing, and you are seeing a lot of ads for junk foods and fast food, “ he says. “You are also snacking more and your sleeping habits are affected so you sleep less, which is also associated with risk of obesity.
“If your child has a TV set or Internet connection in their bedroom or if you let your teens go to bed with their iPad or cellular phone, that child is not going to get enough sleep and their risk for obesity goes up dramatically,” Strasburger says.
No Magic Bullet
Scott Kahan, MD, co-director of the George Washington University Weight Management Program in Washington, D.C., says that he is not surprised the study interventions had only a moderate effect on TV viewing habits.
But even this modest reduction is important, he says. “We can’t expect any magic bullet to solve the problem of childhood obesity whether a special diet, exercise plan, or intervention aimed at decreasing TV time, there’s no single thing that will solve this multifaceted problem.
“There is a strong connection between screen time and gaining weight and being overweight as well as a number of other unhealthy behaviors even if you don’t end up gaining excess weight,” Kahan says.
“Sitting in front of the TV watching children’s TV shows exposes kids to so much branding and fast food advertising,” he says. “This primes peoples’ foods preferences and choices and will cause weight gain over time.”
Replacing these ads with commercials for healthy food would be helpful, as would regulations to decrease aggressive junk food advertising to children, Kahan says.