Is controlling electronic media a way to have less fat young kids? (7/5/11)
Electric Weight Gain – Kids, Obesity, and Media
Both the National Institute of Medicine and the American Academy of Pediatrics last week said the same thing – keep young kids away from much electronic media and protect their rest – to aid their development and prevent obesity. And we should listen to that advice.
Why These Recommendations Now?
According to the IOM, made up of some of the most accomplished academic physician researchers in the US, obesity is now hitting toddlers – hard. They estimate that 20% of kids two to five years old are obese. They’re worried about the long term trend, as obese toddlers often become obese adults.
What Prompted These Changes?
Obesity among young kids is rapidly increasing worldwide. Much of the increase is occurring in the developing world. A recent Harvard study found about 350 million diabetics worldwide using relatively tight clinical criteria, compared with the 285 million they had expected – a doubling of the world population of diabetics in less than a decade. Much of the diabetes increase was felt due to people living longer – and to overall weight gain. The greatest increases in diabetic numbers were seen in China and India, where work is now less physical, food is more starchy and plentiful, and sleep is declining in amount.
What Recent Data Prompted The New Advice?
Work done at the Seattle Children’s Research Institute by doctors Garrison and Christakis clearly prompted the American Academy of Pediatrics to act. The Seattle study looked at 600 children aged 3-5 and their media use.
Children who watched daytime TV and saw violent shows had problems with more nightmares, night-time awakening, and daytime sleepiness. Watching other programming – at least during the day – did not seem to create these particular problems.
However, watching in the evening was associated with all manner of sleep problems – even if the shows were non-violent.
Time of day clearly matters – at it does for most biological events.
Looking at work done previously, the Institute of Medicine recommended a blanket 7 PM time of sleep for toddlers, and that electronic media be turned off an hour before sleep.
Why Would Evening Media Have a Negative Effect on Sleep and Weight?
- The kids are being kept up later by watching the programs – often directly cutting into their sleep time.
- Body clock effects of light – even light from TVs, not to mention the more potent light from computer monitors and other devices like tablets, reset kids’ circadian (24 hour) rhythms. Give kids more evening light and that will push their clocks even later – making it harder for them to sleep and to wake up and function in the morning (the same of course is true of adults.)
- When kids are watching media they usually are pretty immobile, which A. Means less physical activity and B. Less playing and exploring on their own. Less physical activity the the least correlates with greater weight gain. Whether their brains’ learn more through self-directed activities has considerable experimental support, though direct comparison studies of brain activity of watching TV versus self-playing have generally not been made in this age group.
- Kids get more chances to watch food commercials for sugary snacks, cereals, and foods. Commenting on the Academy’s recommendation, a Providence – St. Joseph Medical Center pediatrician explained that kids are seeing 5,000 to 10,000 food commercials a year, mainly for foods the Academy considers unhealthy.
- Just as in adults, less than average sleep times means greater weight – in a population already undergoing an explosive obesity epidemic.
What Will Happen With These Recommendations?
Watch for what usually happens with national recommendations by medical bodies – not much. Parents are harried and fretful, trying to cope with a terrible economy. Putting kids before electronic media is often one of the cheapest and most convenient forms of baby sitting.
Moreover, not all kids like to go to bed early – especially when they can watch electronic media. The companies advertising on TV and the net are also dearly interested in keeping the kids watching, wishing to create loyal customers that can last a lifetime – as Disney has done.
And children’s foods make a lot of money. Food corporations are very vigorously resisting any attempts to regulate food advertising for kids, claiming they are producing more healthy foods already, and self policing effectively.
Perhaps 10,000 TV commercials watched by most every American child each year is not enough for food companies. The data suggest, however, that not only are kids getting hooked on sugar early – often in preposterously high quantity – but that they are getting fatter earlier.
Obese two year olds are our problem for a lifetime – with worsened health, incomes, self-image and job performance.
We need to control the amount of advertising kids see – especially for junk and fast foods. Federal regulation may or may not come, depending on the effectiveness of political campaign contributions. At this point, parents will have to do the heavy lifting themselves.
The American Academy of Pediatrics and Institute of Medicine guidelines are sound. Get the kids moving whenever possible – with the adults. Keep them away from media in the evening when they need to sleep – so they can build new healthy bodies and control their weight.
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