A new study has found that children in kindergarten and first grade who watch at least 60 minutes of television a day are more likely to be overweight or obese than those less exposed to the tube.
Currently, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends a two hour cap on daily TV consumption in childhood, but this study suggests that most kids should watch a maximum of half of that.
“Children watching one to two hours were heavier than those watching less than one hour, and were almost as heavy as those watching greater than two hours daily,” the study’s author, Dr. Mark DeBoer of the University of Virginia, told Newsweek.
DeBoer's team assessed data from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Survey, which included 11,113 kids enrolled in kindergarten during the 2011-2012 school year. Part of the study collected information around lifestyle factors that could affect a child's educational performance, including each child's computer usage and television habits as reported by his or her parents. The students' height and weight were also measured.
Researchers then collected the same information from the same students and parents a year later, finding some striking correlations between TV-watching habits and weight. The data showed that kindergarteners and first-graders who had a daily dose of 1-2 hours or more of screen time per day had much higher body mass indexes than those who watched TV for an hour or less each day. The children who spent at least 60 minutes in front of the screen were 39 percent more likely to become overweight and 86 percent more likely to become obese.
The researchers did not find a correlation between the children's computer use and weight.
Research has linked heavier television habits with heavier people for 30 years. A study published in 1985 examined children aged 6 to 11, concluding that "we fatten our children at the television set." And studies have consistently found a positive correlation between hours spent in front of the TV and weight.
While the present research didn't investigate how TV informed weight gain, previous studies have indicated that exposure to commercials may be one factor. In a 2013 study of older children, obesity and media habits, a team of researchers from Harvard University and Boston Children's Hospital found that paying attention to television shows had a far greater impact on weight than other media use, such as computer and video game playing. Those researchers theorized that commercials may influence a preference for sugary, unhealthy foods -- like the ones that buy ad time during cartoons. They also suggested that TV viewing contributes to mindless snacking.
Other studies have found that children who have a television set in their bedrooms are more likely to be overweight than those who do not. The answer -- to limit TV-watching time -- seems evident, but that can be easier said than done for many parents: A recent estimate found that the average family has 10 screens in their household.
The research was presented Sunday at the Pediatric Academic Societies' annual meeting in San Diego.