Does your child spend hours sitting in front of a screen? Television, video games, computers, smart phones, and whatever electronic gizmo comes next occupy ever greater amounts of our kid's time. Virtually all the time your child is engaged with these devices he isn't being active (a few video games are notable exceptions). Instead of riding bikes, jumping rope, or playing ball when kids come home from school they're likely to plop down on a chair and watch a screen. According to one study the average child spends 24 hours per week watching. Between the ages of 12 and 17 the typical child spends 3 years looking at screens; it's surprising that they have time for anything else. Kids spend more time watching than doing anything else other than sleeping.
Unfortunately, all this viewing presents a triple threat to your child's health and well-being. Watching is sedentary. The time your child spends watching she isn't spending moving. In addition, research conducted at the University of Buffalo suggests that, on average, kids consume an extra 600 calories per day while they are watching. If they were playing outside they wouldn't be eating but for many kids, grabbing something to eat while watching is a necessary ritual. The third consequence of TV viewing (but probably not video game playing) is that your child's basal metabolism may actually decrease while passively viewing the tube. There's some evidence that TV viewing lowers metabolism to a greater degree than other passive activities.
Decreasing the time your child spends passively viewing screens doesn't need to be a major battle. The first step is to look at where TV's are located in your house. Does your child have a TV in his bedroom? If he does, you'll need to remove it. Put it in another room or, better yet, donate it to a charity. Having a bedroom TV makes it too easy for your child to watch instead of doing something more active.
Next, examine how you use the television in your home. In some families, the TV is always on, even if no one is sitting and watching it. Holly, a young mother I worked with, turned it on for company as soon as she came home. Although she wasn't watching, the sound coming from the TV was her companion as she went about her household chores. Often when her daughter came home from school, she would get a snack and then sit down to watch whatever program her mother had on. The simple solution was to have Holly listen to the radio so the TV wasn't on when her daughter came home.
Another simple intervention is to just set limits on your child's viewing. The American Academy of Pediatrics suggest that two hours per day of screen time is a reasonable limit for most kids. While you might get an argument from your child, and you shouldn't expect perfect compliance, there's research evidence to suggest that merely setting limits reduces the amount of time kids spend viewing even if you don't strictly enforce the limits.
In addition to setting limits, it's helpful to ask your child what he wants to watch. You don't need to make a judgment about the value of the program but rather you are communicating that TV viewing is an activity that you make a deliberate choice to do; it's not an idle activity to fill any unplanned time. It's also a good idea to occasionally watch a program with your child. While this might not decrease the time spent watching, you can use the experience to increase your child's media literacy. For example, you could discuss some of the messages presented in commercials, or the unreality of the body images presented by TV stars and singers.
Sitting in front of a computer screen is almost as passive as watching TV but setting limits may be more difficult because your child may also use the computer for homework. When you try to set limits you may hear the objection, "I was doing homework, I wasn't playing on the computer." Although it isn't a foolproof solution, you could put the computer in a public area rather than the child's bedroom. You'll be able to tell how much time he's on the computer and reduce the opportunity for playing games or idle web surfing.
Reducing screen time increases time for physical activity, but doesn't guarantee that your child will fill the time with activity. Even with more free time your child might still resist becoming more active. In my next post I'll have suggestions for overcoming this resistance. You can also check my book, It's NOT Just Baby Fat! for more ideas to help your child.