As a parent, you are the guiding force behind much of what your children are exposed to, including food, education, playmates and recreation. You also have the power to pull the plug on harmful influences – such as too much sugar, not-so-nice playmates, staying up too late and, of course, what your children are watching on the screen – be it television, their computer or other digital devices available to young hands.
Not all screen time is ill-advised. Some television programs or computer games can enhance your children's learning and spark their imagination. But too much screen time can short-circuit a child's ability to thrive at home and at school, promoting negative behaviors, diminished creativity, less academic success, inconsistent sleep, and perhaps of most concern, poor eating behaviors.
In a study published in the American Journal of Public Health last year, researchers found that, more than the programs children watch on television, commercials pose perhaps the greatest threat to the physical health of young viewers.
Curb your kids' appetite for junk TV
The assortment of sugary cereals and beverages, candy, snacks and fast food options that flit across the screen – on average, children take in one food ad per five minutes during Saturday morning programming – leaves a bad taste in the mouths of researchers who warn that all that advertising points kids in the direction of unhealthy consumption. The repeated exposure to these commercials influences children's desire both to try these empty-calorie foods and, once sampled, their desire to continue eating the same unwholesome choices. This junk food loyalty inevitably leads to weight gain, which is contributing to obesity among children.
It's no wonder children develop a taste for poor nutrition: according to a report published by the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation (PDF), children between 2 and 7 view more than 4,400 food ads each year; children between 8 and 12 see more than 7,600 yearly; and teenagers 13 to 17 see more than 6,000 food ads annually. The average 2-year-old watches nine hours of television each week, while the average 5-year-old watches nearly 15 hours of TV.
Researchers sound the alarm when viewing exceeds the American Academy of Pediatrics' recommended daily maximum of two hours for children 2 and older. According to a 2010 study of 1,300 children, those who watched more than two hours of television per day were more likely to experience greater challenges by the fourth grade, including bullying, poor math grades, less physical activity and a greater body mass index (BMI) than their peers. They also consumed greater amounts of soft drinks and snacks.
Exercise your parental control
If you're a parent, take a closer look at your child's digital diet. Limit screen time, and know what your kids are watching – or playing. Researchers have found that the healthiest television choices are public broadcast programs – usually of the educational variety – and commercial-free DVDs, neither of which is associated with obesity in kids.
Beyond sparing kids from junk food messaging, limiting TV and screen time can help children build more meaningful connections with their parents, siblings and peers. Using television or computer games as a way to keep a child occupied while you make dinner, for example, deprives them of the opportunity to get involved, learn and be of service. Consider, instead, asking children to help prepare dinner or set the table.
If there's a TV in your kitchen, keep it off while you eat – and don't get in the habit of eating in front of the TV, no matter where it's located. Don't keep TVs in children's bedrooms, and establish an agreed-upon policy for when electronic devices such as computers and video game systems get turned off before bedtime.
Make healthy choices together
The American Academy of Pediatrics offers some basic guidelines to help establish good screen hygiene:
- Talk as a family about programming. Decide what can stay and what should go – and invite your children to help set their own limits.
- Choose carefully. Make sure you're familiar with the content of your children's favorite shows before you grant them access to something that may not be age-appropriate.
- Go for added value. Look for shows with upbeat, healthy characters who espouse positive values such as acceptance, compromise, sharing and the like.
- Be selective. Help your child select a program that is meaningful to him or her, rather than watching whatever happens to be on at the moment, and limit viewing to just that show, encouraging a different activity – such as outdoor play, crafts or reading – for afterward.
- Watch together. Showing an interest in what your child is watching can spark questions, conversation and the opportunity to learn something new about your child.
- Speak up. If something negative on TV provokes a question from your child or evokes a negative response in you, talk about it together.