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.”*
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 adolescents. Since then, multiple studies have corroborated Harvard’s findings. The risk of childhood obesity increases as the number of hours television watching increases.† 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.‡
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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*National Institutes of Health (NIH), MedlinePlus, Screen Time and Children, on the Internet at www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/patientinstructions/000355.htm.
†Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, Obesity Prevention Source, Television Watching and “Sit Time,” on the Internet at www.hsph.harvard.edu/obesity-prevention-source/obesity-causes/television-and-sedentary-behavior-and-obesity.
‡M. Story and S. French, Food Advertising and Marketing Directed at Children and Adolescents in the US, The International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity, on the Internet at www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC416565/?report=reader.
Career options may require additional experience, training, or other factors beyond the successful completion of this degree program.