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November 28, 2012

FIT FAMILIES: Health expert says limit kids’ time on TV, Internet

Are there more TVs in your house than people? According to 2006-2010 United States Census Bureau data there are 2.59 individuals in the average American household. The 2010 data from The Nielsen Company reported that the average household has 2.5 TV sets. However, more than half of households have three TV sets and 31 percent of households have four or more TV sets. Add in computers (desktops, laptops, and tablets), e-readers, hand-held video games and smart phones, and chances are good that the screens in your home far out-number the people living there.

Based on data from the 2009 Kaiser Family Foundation study on children’s media use, 8 to 18-year-olds spend about 4.5 hours watching TV, 1.5 hours using computers (outside of school work), one hour 13 minutes playing video games, and 25 minutes watching movies. That’s more than 7.5 hours of screen time each day. Factor in time at school and asleep, it’s no wonder youth are missing the mark on the recommended 60 minutes of daily physical activity.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends limiting screen time to no more than two hours per day. For kids who are far from this mark, starting to work toward it is better (even if it’s never reached) than allowing it to continue to go unchecked. The media environment parents set in the home plays a role in the amount of time children spend with media. There are a number of strategies parents can employ to reign in screen time.

Set Limits

Having rules about screen time — and enforcing them — is a good way to regulate screen time. For example, families may choose to implement rules such as no sitting during commercials, no more than 30 minutes at a time, no screen time until homework is done, no screen time during the two hours before bed (benefits sleep quality), or screen time privileges are earned based on doing chores or reading books.

No screens in bedrooms

According to the Kaiser Foundation study, 71 percent of 8 to 18-year-olds have a TV in their bedroom. Taking the TV and other media out of the bedroom can help reduce screen time but the benefits don’t stop there. Putting TVs and computers in common areas helps families keep an eye on the content of the media being viewed by kids. Screen-free bedrooms can increase the amount and enhance the quality of sleep. Family relationships also improve when kids aren’t hiding out in their rooms watching TV, playing video games, or surfing the web.

Screen-free meals

Does your family eat meals with the TV on? Do you play on your smart phone at the dinner table? A growing body of evidence supports the many benefits of family meals including more healthful eating, better weight control, improved family communication and relationships, and decreased risk of substance abuse, depression and teen pregnancy. Family meals spent in front of the TV or continually interrupted by cell phone use don’t boast these same benefits.

Set an example

It’s hard to get kids to buy in to something you’re not willing to do yourself. Since the average American spends more than five hours a day watching TV (Nielsen) — not including other forms of screen media — most adults could also benefit from keeping their screen time in check. Trading even a portion of that screen time for physical activity will greatly benefit your health.

For more information and tips on reducing screen time, check out the WE CAN! (Ways to Enhance Children’s Activity and Nutrition) program from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The WE CAN! website (http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/public/heart/obesity/wecan/) offers a screen time tracking chart for better understanding your families media habits and includes tips for reducing screen time and increasing physical activity.

Michelle LeCount is the childhood obesity coordinator  for Indiana University Health Goshen Hospital.

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