If you want to see you health improving, stop looking at the screen.

Young person smartphone.

Image credits Paul Henri Degrande.

A new scientific statement from the American Heart Association warns that children and teens should try to wean off of screens. Screen time from any device is associated with an increased amount of sedentary behavior, they explain, which promotes obesity and other health complications associated with lack of physical exercise.

The heart of the issue

Sedentary behaviors — things like sitting, reclining, or laying down while awake — exert little physical energy and contribute to overweightedness and obesity. That’s not exactly news. However, we’re spending more time than ever before with our eyes glued onto screens, and this is especially true for children, teens, and yours truly.

Now, the American Heart Association (AHA) says that this lifestyle poses serious consequences to the health of teens and children.

The new scientific statement — a scholarly synopsis of a topic and official point of view of the emitter — was developed by a panel of experts who reviewed the existing literature on the subject of sedentary behavior’s relation to cardiovascular disease or stroke. The document holds that children and adolescents have seen a net increase in the recreational use of screen-based devices over the last twenty years. While TV-viewing has declined over the same period, those hours were usurped by other devices such as smartphones or tablet computers.

Current estimates are that 8- to 18-year-olds spend more than 7 hours using screens daily, according to the paper. However, the authors caution that almost all of the available scientific literature on this subject relied on self-reported screen time. Very few of the studies looked at which types of devices were used in different contexts, they add. All in all, this means that the studies can’t be used to establish a cause-effect relationship between the use of these devices and the health complications examined as part of the paper.

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There is a large body of evidence pointing to the relationship between screen time and obesity, however. Writing for Reuters in late 2016, Lisa Rapaport reported that “a minimum five-hour-a-day [TV time] increased the odds of obesity by 78 percent compared with teens who didn’t have TV time,” and that similarly “heavy use of other screens was tied to a 43 percent greater risk of obesity.”

“Still, the available evidence is not encouraging: overall screen time seems to be increasing — if portable devices are allowing for more mobility, this has not reduced overall sedentary time nor risk of obesity,” says Tracie A. Barnett, chair of the writing group.

“Although the mechanisms linking screen time to obesity are not entirely clear, there are real concerns that screens influence eating behaviors, possibly because children ‘tune out’ and don’t notice when they are full when eating in front of a screen.”

“There is also evidence that screens are disrupting sleep quality, which can also increase the risk of obesity,” Barnett said.

The most important takeaway from the study is for parents and children to try limiting screen time, the authors add. AHA recommends that children and teens get no more than 1 or 2 hours of recreational screen time daily, which the authors also support. Given that younglings already “far exceed these limits,” they add, parents should step up to the plane and be vigilant about their children’s screen time “including phones,” Barnett believes.

Efforts to minimize screen time should center around parent involvement, the team explains. Parents can help push children to reduce the time they spend on devices by setting a good personal example and establish screen-time regulations around the house.

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Try to keep screens out of the bedroom (as much as one can do that in the XXIst century), the team adds, as some studies have shown they can interfere with sleep patterns. Also, try to maximize face-to-face interactions and outdoor activities.

“In essence: Sit less; play more,” Barnett explains.

The team says that more research is needed to help us understand the long-term effects of screen time on children and teens. We also don’t really know how to help youngsters be less sedentary — a problem that the appeal of screens aggravates, but doesn’t necessarily cause. Before we can address this imbalance in how children and then choose to spend their time, we need more comprehensive information on the impact of today’s sedentary pursuits.

The paper “Sedentary Behaviors in Today’s Youth: Approaches to the Prevention and Management of Childhood Obesity: A Scientific Statement From the American Heart Association” has been published in the journal Circulation: Journal of the American Heart Association.

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