Tackling the Toll Technology Takes on Children’s Health

Too much screen time may lead to childhood obesity

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By: Grace Derocha, registered dietitian, certified diabetes educator and certified health coach with Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan

According to the National Library of Medicine, screen time heightens the risk for obesity in children and adolescents. This national epidemic, which affects one in three Michigan children, increases the likelihood of developing heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, cancer and other chronic conditions early in life. While most parents understand the importance of diet and exercise, it’s easy to overlook outside influences impacting a child’s physical and mental health—including screen time. Thankfully, the solution doesn’t have to be eliminating technology, but instead finding a balance and using devices as a tool to make healthier choices.

Activity Levels: A Harvard School of Public Health study found a link between screen time and obesity, specifically in children and adults who regularly watch television. However, experts recommend families limit all screen time to no more than two hours per day. Whether it’s organized sports or household chores, kids should be engaged in at least 60 minutes of physical activity daily. Parents can explore incorporating movement into screen time with physically interactive video games or activity-based apps. Unstructured play, like dance parties or living room obstacle courses, also allow children to use their imagination and decrease sedentary behaviors.

Communication and Relationships: Children and teens who are distracted by devices often miss opportunities to develop interpersonal skills and emotional cues. During adolescence, social interactions teach children how to communicate, be mentally present and bond with others. To ensure kids thrive in social situations, leave devices behind for school events, play dates and family gatherings. Setting a daily time limit also empowers children to make decisions on when it’s most valuable to use devices.

Eating Habits: Evidence suggests children distracted by screens mindlessly consume larger portions of high-calorie, low-nutrient foods and beverages. Younger generations are also more heavily influenced by digital marketing, which endorses unhealthy options like sugary drinks and snacks at a higher rate than fruits and vegetables. Families can establish healthy eating habits by unplugging at meal time and discussing the importance of a balanced diet. Getting the kids involved and choosing home-cooked meals over convenience foods and dining out also inspires kids to develop healthier habits they can carry with them as they get older.

Self-Esteem: Considering the nature of social media and constant illusion of perfection, parents should monitor their child’s use of phones and other devices regularly. Dialogue around body image should encourage a healthy lifestyle without damaging a child’s self-esteem. Rather than talking about weight, parents should focus on the benefits of healthy behaviors, such as increased energy, happier moods and focused thoughts. Finding extracurricular activities that suit a child’s interests and strengths can also build self-confidence.

Sleep: Excessive screen time has been shown to prevent the production of melatonin and disrupt the body’s natural sleeping pattern. Knowing some U.S. teens spend more time in front of screens than they do sleeping, make it a family rule to keep all phones, tablets and screened devices in a drawer and out of the bedroom at bedtime. This will eliminate the temptation to use them, even momentarily, and ensure more restful sleep.

Grace Derocha is a registered dietitian, certified diabetes educator and certified health coach with Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan. For more tips on health and wellness, visit AHealthierMichigan.org.

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