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Healthy Eating: Is Too Much Screen Time Causing Weight Gain in Children?

The impact of screen time may be affecting the healthy eating habits of children and adolescents, making it more difficult than ever for them to maintain a healthy weight.

Even before the debut of smartphones, children and adolescents were spending a significant amount of time watching television and playing video games. Today, technology has enabled constant connection through texting, social media, and other online activities—and may be causing young people to make unhealthy choices.

Screen Time Statistics

“Screen time” is the time spent looking at digital screens—computers, TV shows, video games, and smartphones. Statistics from the National Institutes of Health show that “most American children spend about 3 hours a day watching TV. Added together, all types of screen time can total 5 to 7 hours a day.”1

Healthy Eating: Is Too Much Screen Time Causing Weight Gain in Children?

How Screen Time Leads to Weight Gain

In 1985, a research study at Harvard University first identified a connection between TV watching and obesity in children and adolescents2. Since then, multiple studies have corroborated Harvard’s findings. According to the Official Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, “Current evidence suggests that screen media exposure leads to obesity in children and adolescents through increased eating while viewing; exposure to high-calorie, low-nutrient food and beverage marketing that influences children’s preferences, purchase requests, consumption habits; and reduced sleep duration.”3 Health education specialists agree that excessive screen time on all digital media creates unhealthy habits in several ways:

  • Lack of physical exercise—Time spent in front of a digital screen—whether it’s a 52-inch flat-screen TV, a tablet, or a smartphone—is usually sedentary. Spending so much time sitting leaves very little time for younger children to run around and play, or for older children and adolescents to participate in exercise programs or general physical activity.

  • Fast-food cravings—TV programs aimed at children often feature commercials for unhealthy snacks, sweet sodas, fast-food meals, and sugary breakfast foods. Just seeing the commercials can make children crave a snack even when they aren’t hungry. Chances are they aren’t going to want a healthy snack.

  • Pester power—Marketers understand that children have considerable purchase influence, and often get what they want simply by pestering or nagging their parents in supermarkets. Studies indicate that children begin using their “pester power” at the age of two. Their first requests are often for breakfast cereal, followed by snacks and beverages.4

The Power of Parents and Health Education Specialists

Parents have the ultimate responsibility for setting healthy eating expectations and establishing screen time guidelines. By limiting the number of hours spent in front of screens, parents can start to increase the likelihood of their children maintaining (or returning to) a healthy weight. Guidelines can include a specific number of daily hours spent on physical activities including playing outside, bike riding, getting involved in sports, and taking family walks. Assertive parents can take away the “pester power” of their younger children by limiting junk food in favor of tasty healthy snacks and meals.

Health education specialists working in academic, clinical, and community settings can reach thousands of families with public health information, programs, and even ad campaigns about healthy foods, weight loss, and healthy weight goals.

If you’re interested in becoming a public health educator, many online degree programs offer health education degrees to help you start or advance your career in this field:

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  • MS in Health Education and Promotion—In addition to a general program, some universities offer online master’s specializations in specific areas such as health policy and advocacy.

  • BS in Public Health—Begin your education for a career as a public health educator. You may choose a general program or a concentration such as health promotion and wellness.

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