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Too much screen time puts children's health at risk, American Heart Association warns

Too much screen time puts children's health at risk
The AHA urges parents to limit the recreational screen time of children and teens to no more than one to two hours per day. For very young children — those aged 2 to 5 years — daily screen time should not exceed an hour.

This week, the American Heart Association (AHA) became the latest health organization to warn parents about letting children spend too much time with smartphones, tablets, TVs and other screen-based devices.

In a new scientific statement published in its journal Circulation, the AHA details how such devices are associated with an increased amount of sedentary and other behaviors that can increase the risk of overweight and obesity in young people.

Some research has suggested that childhood obesity is associated with signs of heart diseases, including in children as young as 8 years old.

The AHA urges parents to limit the recreational screen time of children and teens to no more than one to two hours per day. For very young children — those aged 2 to 5 years — daily screen time should not exceed an hour.  (Screen time should be avoided altogether for younger children.) 

“Given that most youth already far exceed these limits, it is especially important for parents to be vigilant about their child’s screen time, including phones,” said Tracie Barnett, the lead author of the scientific statement and a researcher at the INRS-Institut Armand Frappier and Sainte-Justine University Hospital Research Center in Montreal, in a press release

Children between the ages of 8 and 18 spend, on average, more than seven hours a day looking at screens, according to background information in the AHA statement.

Potential health risks

Of course, the types of screens children are watching today are much different from those of previous generations. Traditional television viewing has declined, while the use of other screen-based devices — including for viewing TV shows — has increased. 

This trend has led to overall net increases in children’s screen time, the AHA statement notes. And that poses potential health risks for children.

“Although the mechanisms linking screen time to obesity are not entirely clear, there are real concerns that screen influence eating behaviors, possibly because children ‘tune out’ and don’t notice when they are full when eating in front of a screen,” said Barnett. “There is also evidence that screens are disrupting sleep quality, which can also increase the risk of obesity,” she added.

Childhood obesity is a major public health issue in the United States. According to a study published earlier this year, 35.1 percent of U.S. children were overweight or obese in 2016 — a jump of 4.7 percent from just two years earlier, in 2014.

As the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention points out, children and teens who are obese are at increased risk for a variety of medical problems, including high blood pressure and high cholesterol (which are risk factors for heart disease), type 2 diabetes, asthma, sleep apnea and joint problems.

In addition, they are more likely to experience depression, anxiety and low self-esteem.

What parents can do

At the end of its statement, the AHA makes several recommendations to parents. They can be summarized as follows:

  • Limit your child’s recreational screen-based activities as much as possible. (The American Academy of Pediatrics offers an online media time calculator that can help you determine appropriate screen-time limits for your child.)
  • Avoid passive screen time, such as leaving the television on in the background while you’re doing other things.
  • Keep bedrooms and meal times free of televisions and other recreational screen-based devices. (That includes your own devices.) Have a special box or drawer where everybody stores their devices while sleeping or eating. 
  • Set a good example for your children by limiting your own screen time.

Finally, provide your child with fun, active alternative activities. “Maximize face-to-face interactions and time outdoors,” Barnett said. “In essence: Sit less; play more.”

FMI: You can read the AHA scientific statement on children and screen time at the organization’s website. You'll also find additional tips for limiting your family's screen time at that site.

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