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The Effects of Screen Time on Fitness & Health

When children watch TV, play video games or spend time on the phone or computer, odds are good they're not being physically active. And that, says the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), can play havoc on their physical fitness and health, both now and in the future.

Children sitting on the couch, each looking at a mobile phone or tablet

“On average, children spend seven or more hours a day looking at a screen, and — in addition to displacing physical activity — that promotes other unhealthy behaviors,” says Dr. Daniel Pelzer, a pediatrician with The Iowa Clinic.

“For example, sitting in front of a TV or computer can increase snacking. Late-night screen time often interferes with sleep. Combined with physical inactivity, these behaviors promote childhood obesity and the health risks that come with it,” Dr. Pelzer says.

Active Children vs. Sedentary Children

To be healthy, children need to be physically active. “A child who has regular physical activity will have better cardiorespiratory fitness, stronger bones and muscles, higher energy levels, an enhanced sense of emotional well-being, and better weight control. Their risk for a variety of diseases is much lower,” says Dr. Pelzer.

Conversely, a child who is sedentary is more likely to develop obesity and health problems that come with it — high blood pressure, high cholesterol, asthma and other breathing problems, joint problems and type 2 diabetes, for example. Childhood obesity also sets the stage for chronic diseases later on, such as cancer and heart disease.

How Many Kids are Obese?
Preschool children (2-5 years) 13.9%
School-aged children (6-11 years) 18.4%
Adolescents (12-19 years) 20.6%

Source: 2017 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey

Screen Time: How Much & What Type?

For children over the age of 2, in this 24/7 digital world, a little bit of screen time is beneficial. It engages the mind and can be a vital part of your child's education. In fact, the AAP doesn't count time spent doing online homework as screen time at all. But for everything else, setting boundaries and making physical fitness a priority are essential.

According to the AAP:

Babies are the most vulnerable to screens. Infants younger than 18 months should not be exposed to any digital media. This includes TV.

Children 2 to 5 years should limit screen time to less than one hour daily. “The type of exposure is very important during these developmental years. Choose only high-quality TV shows designed for young children, such as ‘Sesame Street,' and Skype or FaceTime interactions with grandparents and others,” Pelzer says.

Children 6 and older. Place consistent limits on the time spent using media, and the types of media, and give priority to brain-boosting activities that involve creating, connecting and learning. Make sure screen time does not take the place of adequate sleep, physical activity and other behaviors essential to health.

“One study showed that children who exceeded the screen-time guidelines had 1.69 times the odds of being overweight or obese compared to those who met the guidelines,” Dr. Pelzer says. “Also alarming, a study published by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and Prevention showed that nearly one-third of high school students play video or computer games for three or more hours on school days.”

So, to help your kids develop into the strongest, healthiest and happiest versions of themselves, limit their exposure to digital media, monitor the quality of that exposure and be a good role model. Encourage at least an hour every day with activities that increase physical fitness — and make it part of daily your routine, too.


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