Preschoolers Watch Too Much TV -- Leads To Obesity

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

TV, video games, and computer use are contributing to the rise of childhood obesity. Before these inventions became so popular, children used to run outside to play. Now, more often than not, our kids are content to sit on the couch with the remote (and a bag of chips).

It starts young. You send your kids to day care with the hopes that your preschooler will learn socialization skills, play games, and sing songs. Unfortunately, a new study shows that toddlers in home-based day care may watch up to two hours of TV during their day. Add in the two plus hours of TV that toddlers watch at home and you have way too much TV time! Our toddlers spend as much as one third of the day watching television, according to Dr. Dimitri Christakis, a pediatrician at Children's Hospital and Regional Medical Center in Seattle and a researcher at the University of Washington. And this issue is certainly not limited to preschoolers. Studies of older children confirm the fact that America is raising a generation of couch potatoes.

A recent study based on survey data from Statistics Canada compared lifestyle behaviors between overweight and non-overweight children (age 6 to 11) and teens (age 12 to 17). The study showed that overweight children, of either gender, between age 6 and 11 and overweight boys between age 12 and 17 reported significantly higher levels of screen time than non-overweight children of the same age. While overweight teen girls did watch more TV than normal-weight teen girls, the most striking difference in this age group was the level of fruit and vegetable consumption.

A more surprising result was that the amount of physical activity did not differ much between the two groups. It seems that normal-weight children and teens will play in a soccer game and then engage in activities other than TV and computer use while overweight children and teens come back from their soccer games and veg out in front of some sort of screen. Obviously, almost any activity will burn more calories than watching TV or playing sedentary computer games. All the extra movement the non-overweight kids get throughout the day really adds up!

Past studies from the US have also shown that children who watch a lot of TV are more likely to be obese. A study published in Lancet in 2004 followed 1000 children born in 1972 or 1973 over the course of 26 years. The more hours of TV a child consistently watched, the more likely that child was to be overweight.

Putting a TV in a child's bedroom raises the risk of obesity even further. A 2002 study from Columbia University revealed that preschoolers with a TV in their bedroom were 31 percent more likely to be overweight than those children without a TV in their bedroom. A TV in the bedroom instantly adds about an hour of increased TV time per day.

It is impossible to tell what is cause and what is effect. Does watching TV make a child overweight or does being overweight cause a child to watch a lot of TV? It is not clear.

Chubby children are often teased in school and left out when children are picking teams in gym class. They tend to have some discomfort in their knees and ankles when running. They become embarrassed that they can't keep up with the other children and tend to turn to more sedentary activities, such as watching TV and eating. This causes more weight gain which makes the situation even worse. The overweight child starts to avoid sports altogether and further increases TV and computer time. Eventually the child becomes obese and unable to do even simple activities, such as walking.

TV causes weight gain in many different ways. Most important, children are inactive while watching TV. And the average child sees 40,000 commercials a year- mostly for high calorie and high fat foods. Companies spend so much money on these child-targeted commercials because they work! They prompt children to crave these unhealthy foods. How many of you remember seeing commercials for fruits, vegetables, or whole grains? These healthy foods are rarely promoted on TV because they are not usually branded items and don't turn out the same profits.

And who hasn't experienced the mindless eating that occurs during TV viewing? We are all guilty of this from time to time. A child gets so engrossed in the program that he doesn't realize he have eaten the entire bag of chips. During the week, children tend to consume 18 percent of their total daily calories while watching TV. On weekends, children consume 26 percent of their daily calories while watching TV.

New studies indicate that children's resting metabolic rates are lower while watching TV than they are when sitting still, staring at a wall, without the TV on. This means that they are burning fewer calories during this time. It is not clear why this occurs, but it may be because they fidget less while watching or because they get into a trance-like state.

So what can a parent do to help their child?

First, parents must limit their children's screen time. The American Acaedemy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends fewer than 2 hours of TV per day. Parents seem to believe that their children will not agree to these limits but elementary and middle school children can usually be persuaded to cut down on TV.

Most children who do put up a fight do so because they don't know what else to do! They are so used to plopping down in front of the tube that they haven't learned to amuse themselves without a screen. Help your child make a list of other activities to do instead of watching TV.

Have your kids make a pie chart of what they do with their spare time and tell them the doctor says more than 2 hours of TV a day is unhealthy. Then fill in the pie chart with other activities. They can even interview a grandparent or great-grandparent about what they used to do before they had TV. Make trying new activities into a game.

Do not put a TV in your child's bedroom. When you put a TV in your child's room, you immediately lose control of how much your child is watching and also of what your child is watching.

When your kids are watching TV, sit down with them and talk about what they are seeing. Teach your kids the purpose of all the commercials they see for their favorite unhealthy treats. Explain that companies who produce unhealthy foods are trying to make money by tempting children with their commercials.

Parents should never allow their kids to eat meals or snacks in front of a television. Children (and adults) do not realize how many calories they consume when they watch TV. Don't let your kids eat while distracted.

The bottom line is that parents have to be responsible and aware of how much TV their kids are watching. Even in these crazy times, as tempting as it may be, the TV should not be used as a babysitter. Your child's health depends on it.