by Nancy Shute
Watching a lot of TV makes for fatter kids, but media multitasking has taken the place of television in most kids' lives. So parents and pediatricians might want to rethink how they manage children's screen time.
That the word from Russell Jago, an exercise scientist at the University of Bristol in England. "We've known for a number of years that kids are watching a large amount of TV, and it's not good for their health," Jago told Shots. "But the way technology is changing, we thought TV watching might not be quite as important as it was."
Jago and his colleagues asked 63 10- and 11-year-olds how they use screen devices in a series of focus groups, held at school. Almost all the kids had a TV at home; 75 percent had access to a game console; 71 percent a laptop; 62 percent a desktop computer; and 51 percent a smart phone. Most of the children used more than one device at a time. "They're watching TV while on a laptop IMing a friend," Jago says. The study is published in the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity.
Some kids said they used a second device to avoid watching TV advertisements; others said they resorted to a second screen while a computer or game console was booting up. Indeed, impatience seemed a recurring theme. "If like something is loading on the laptop I would watch TV while it is loading," one boy said.
Sounds like the television, once the king of the rec room, is now relegated to electronic also-ran, especially now that Hulu and other video-streaming services let people watch TV programming on laptops and phones, at their convenience. But some participants did say they still remained loyal to the TV, though those loyalties are divided. "I think it's because I'm really eager to do both things," a boy said. "I like to go and watch TV, but I also really want to do something else on the computer at the same time."
Jago didn't measure how much time kids are spending with those many screens, or if the health effects differ from plain old TV watching. He says that gathering that information is tough, because teenagers are notoriously unreliable at self-reporting. "They don't have diaries like adults do; they don't have meetings." He's going to try to tackle that next.
A good first step towards healthy use of technology is to set family limits for screen time, Jago says. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no more than two hours a day, and though its guidelines emphasize TV, it would easily transfer to multiple devices.
"Setting goals makes both children and parents aware of how much they are doing, both children and parents," Jago says. "If you don't have goals and you don't monitor it - regardless of the time."
Two hours a day sounds like a healthy screen diet for parents, too - and one that many of us would have a hard time following.