We are becoming increasingly dependent on electronic devices for virtually everything: televisions, laptops, computers, tablets and mobile phones. We have got to a point in time where our baby monitor is connected to our smartphones and our home lights and thermostats can be controlled with a few taps on our tablets (the list goes on). In short, we have made smart devices indispensable in our daily life. And naturally, this trend is catching up to our kids too. Whether they are watching cartoons on TV, surfing the web on their tablets or smartphones or playing games on their PlayStation, PC, Xbox, Nintendo or tablet, they are engaging in activities that require them to spend 1.2 calories per kg of body weight in an hour. This is opposed to actually moving around and engaging in other activities (for instance, walking with you in the grocery store) that cost at least 2.9 calories per kg of body weight in one hour. If your 8-year-old weighs 25 kilograms, that’s roughly 43 calories difference per hour between both activities. Here are some staggering facts about the UK youth in 2014-2015:

  • 53% of 3-4-year-olds and 73% of 5-15-year-olds now use tablets
  • 24% of 8-11s and
    69% of 12-15s now own a smartphone
  • 12-15s now spend a weekly average of 15.5 hours watching
    TV and 18.9 hours going online, and 8-11s spend a weekly average of 14.8 hours watching TV and 11.1 hours going online
  • Among 12-15s, 87% use Facebook, 53% use Instagram and 43% use Snapchat

 

Shocked yet? Now take a step back and look at the bigger picture for a minute: just how is this affecting our children? Children and youngsters are supposed to be tireless bundles of energy who hate staying inside the house; yet there they are today doing practically nothing for hours straight as they play games on their tablets or surf the web. Our youngest, fittest and most active generation is now extremely lazy.

Let’s start by drawing a difference between sedentary behaviour in general and screen sedentary behaviour. Screen sedentary time (SST) is mainly TV viewing, computer use and video-game playing; non-screen sedentary time (NSST) could be any of many non-screen sedentary activities such as studying, sitting in class, eating or socialising. An Australian study found that on average, adolescents spent 5.75 hours in NSST and 3.83 hours in SST for a total of 9.58 hours of their entire day. However, SST still requires less energy expenditure than NSST and is considered less socially valuable for the teens. SST and especially TV viewing allows children and adolescents to be more exposed to advertisements and commercials which promote energy-dense and nutrient-poor foods (i.e. have you ever seen a commercial about fruit or vegetable salads?). Therefore, SST is more detrimental than NSST, and although both should be discouraged for extended periods of time and where they are deemed unnecessary, parents and guardians should try to reduce SST before NSST.

A screen that youngsters across all age groups still enjoy today is TV. Longer durations of TV viewing (more than 2 hours per day) been found to negatively affect overweight status, serum cholesterol levels, smoking habits and fitness levels later in adulthood, a study in New Zealand has found. Children, adolescents and adults all tend to have unhealthier dietary habits that are associated with higher SST activities, mainly TV viewing. So, watching TV also means that children and adolescents are experiencing lower energy expenditure and a higher energy intake. In general, sedentary time is so significant to overall health and obesity such that the odds of a child developing obesity increase consistently per hour of sedentary behaviour. That’s insane!

It doesn’t stop here. In addition to screen time causing all these physical health problems, children and teenagers who engage in 4 or more hours of daily screen time also commonly suffer from attention difficulty, lower self-esteem and happiness, higher anxiety, emotional distress and even depression, according to a Public Health England report. The light emitted from screens has been found to negatively affect children and teenagers’ sleep, subsequently affecting their school performance and general behaviour. Restricting the presence of screens and electronic devices in the children’s bedrooms and their use an hour before bedtime may allow young ones to have deeper and more restful sleep.

 

All of the negative health consequences mentioned above contribute to a vicious cycle and complement one another to worsen health outcomes for children. Low physical activity, high screen time, less healthy diets and shorter sleep durations are all independently associated with childhood overweight and obesity, a recent study in the BMJ highlighted. The NHS advises that all children aged between 5-18 years should engage in at least 60 minutes of physical activity daily. Here are some alternatives to encourage children to do instead of sedentary screen time:

  • Playing sports: kicking it up with the family or friends with activities such as football, basketball or volleyball can be very entertaining. If that’s not always an option, sign up your kids to the local leisure centre and have them enjoy different sports activities there
  • Preparing dinner as a family: divide the dinner chores among your whole family by asking the younger kids to mix salads and the older ones to take care of dishwashing duty. You can also look up some healthy recipes off the Internet and have everyone give a helping hand to prepare the dish
  • Going to the park: few things mount up to a fun day at the park, especially when the weather is nice. Prepare delicious and healthy sandwiches and snacks and off you go, enjoy many different group activities at the park including Frisbee or cops and robbers
  • Learning a new skill: encourage your children to experience new things by enrolling them in a class to learn new skills such as playing a musical instrument.
  • Going to the museum: take your children to a fun trip to the museums so they can discover and explore new things

Depending on your child’s interests, there’s always loads of activities to choose from that encourage fun time with friends or family and help children move away from sedentary screen time. Feeding your little ones healthy food isn’t the whole story. Get them up and get them going! Teach children how to be physically active and have them spend time away from screens and sedentary activities; this will go a long, long way in their futures.

Laura Jabri, MSc 

Laura has a masters in Clinical and Public Health Nutrition from University College London and a bachelors degree from the American University of Beirut. Her interests include nutrition education, obesity prevention, maternal and child nutrition, undernutrition in developing countries and food sustainability solutions.  Tweet her @laurajabri

Foodtalk blog posts are written by a variety of health and care professionals in order to showcase different perspectives in the world of nutrition and health.