The obesity epidemic in Australia is no secret. It is a trend that has continued to rise, with only 1 third (35.2%) of Australian adults now within the ‘health’ weight range. (1) If this is not concerning enough, 1 in 4 (25.3%) children (5 – 17 years) are now also overweight or obese. (2)
When it comes to the issues of excess body weight there is a lot of finger pointing at both nutrition and physical activity levels, however screen time is a huge contributor that often goes ignored.
The links between adult and childhood obesity and screen time have been under investigation by Harvard School of Public Health for over 25 years and the evidence is clear –
Screen time including use of TVs, computers, and gaming devices, contribute to obesity risk. (3)
Numerous studies have shown that for every 2 hours of screen time an adult has a 13 – 23% increased risk of obesity and chronic disease. (4, 5) Conversely, data from The National Weight Control Registry (NWCR) has shown that watching 10 hours or less TV per week is a key element in sustainable weight loss. (6)
What is of particular interest is that this risk of obesity increases irrespective of levels of physical activity. (7) That is, even a child or adult who is otherwise physically active is still at an increased risk of obesity if they exceed the recommended limit for ‘screen time.’ (7)
How does screen time increase the risk of obesity?
The hypothesis stands that screen time may increase the risk of obesity by promoting a poor diet that encourages snacking and by increasing the desire for ‘junk’ food through advertising. (8) Screen time can also interfering with sleep patterns, particularly before bedtime, which has an established link to weight gain. (8) Of course, screen time takes away from physical activity, but the effect on weight gain is to a lesser extent than the impact seen on diet. (3, 8)
How much screen time are we having?
In our digitalised world screen time is increasingly dominating our lives for both work and leisure. The latest data reveals that Australian children (9 – 16 years) spend over 3.5 hours engaged in screen time each day, which is far in excess of the recommended 2 hours or less per day for this age group. (9, 10) For children aged 2 – 5 years the recommended limit for screen time is less than 1 hour, while under the age of 2 years it is recommended that children have no screen time at all. (10)
Reduce your screen time
Reducing screen time is of benefit to the health of all family members, however putting the recommended limits into practice can be difficult to balance particularly when study and homework are still a priority. Limiting screen time also isn’t likely to be a welcome change in a household that is in the habit of racking up several hours in front of a screen each day.
Making a slow transition and implementing small changes gradually is realistic approach to reducing your families screen time.
Removing TVs and computers from bedrooms is an essential move which significantly reduce non-essential screen time and allows you to better monitor use.
Setting up a schedule is also a good move, with allocations for computer based homework and study taking priority. Decide on a reasonable allowance for free screen time, but ensure it doesn’t coincide with meals or 1 hour before bed – these times should remain strictly electronic free. Restricting screen time during daylight hours is also a good strategy, but allowing children to allocate their own free screen time will be important to gain cooperation.
Remove remotes and devices when they are scheduled to be off-limits as this will take away temptation and remind that it is time to be doing other things.
Finding other things to do can be a challenge initially. Taking some time to plan some afterschool and weekend activities will be invaluable in keeping children entertained without a screen. It could be anything; get your children into a new sport, plant a vegetable garden, cook up a storm, go fishing, explore local parks and gardens, or just play together – Besides, not only is it good for you, being active makes you happy!