Explaining the Link Between Screen Time and Obesity

Toddler eating watching tv

A large amount of research has established a clear link between screen usage and obesity in children. What exactly is behind this link? Do parents really need to prohibit screen usage to prevent child obesity, or is a happy medium possible?

The Research

In 2017, an international non-profit organization called Children and Screens: Institute of Digital Media and Child Development put out a compilation of recent research about the relationship between screen usage and child obesity, based on an article by the American Academy of Pediatrics.

This research included studies establishing a positive correlation between child screen usage and increased risk of obesity - meaning that higher levels of screen use were related to higher obesity risk. Correlational research is not completely trustworthy, however, because it does not mean that one thing necessarily caused the other. This correlation between screen use and obesity could mean that a) screen use caused obesity, b) obesity caused screen use. or c) something else caused both of these things.

However, not only did the research find a correlation between screen use and obesity, but a few “randomized controlled trials”—which is another name for a powerful study design that is able to establish cause-and-effect relationships—found that overall, higher levels of screen time led to higher BMI’s in young children.

Basically, what all of this research concluded was that there seems to be a causal relationship between screen usage and risk for childhood obesity.

The Relationship

The three important mechanisms of the relationship between screen use and obesity are:

  1. Increased eating while viewing screens,
  2. Seeing advertisements for unhealthy foods that alter the child’s preferences, and
  3. Disrupting sleep.

Let’s go through each of these mechanisms one by one.

Eat More

When children are engaged in screen-viewing, the article suggests that more high-calorie food and drinks are consumed—and that by repeating this behaviour, the screen can become a trigger or prompt for eating, extend the amount of time spent eating, or distracting the child from feeling full.

Eat Worse

Advertisements often glorify candy, fast-food restaurants, or other unhealthy snacks. Exposure to these ads can change children’s food preferences, grocery requests to parents, and ultimately, their eating habits.

Sleep Less

This mechanism takes some of the information about before-bed screen time and lower sleep quality from a previous blog post, and takes it one step further—one of the consequences of your child’s sleep being disrupted by screens could potentially be a higher risk for obesity. The article suggests that sleep disruptions can affect hormones related to appetite, and lead to more snacking and eating outside of mealtimes—which can all in turn lead to obesity.

What Can Parents Do?

It isn’t necessary (or feasible) to completely remove screens from your children’s lives. Some more reasonable approaches to minimizing the risk for obesity due to screen use include:

  • Setting daily or weekly limits for screen use with your child,
  • Limiting how often/how much your child eats while viewing screens,
  • Monitor your child’s screen use for advertising content (or choose advertisement-free media), and
  • Set a good example (the importance of this was talked about in another blog post) by limiting your own screen time.

It is also important to note that screen usage is not the only cause of childhood obesity, and other measures unrelated to screen time should definitely be put in place to help minimize the risk.