How Screen Time Can Impact Sleep & Childhood Weight Gain | Obesity Medicine Association

June 30, 2021

Aparna Chandrasekaran, MD, MBBS

How screen time may impact sleep quality and juvenile weight gain

Smart phones, TVs, computers have very much become an integral part of our lives. The term “ Screen time “ is relatively a new terminology, referring to time spent on televisions, computer monitors, and mobiles devices. From kindergarten to college, students have weaved their lives around these gadgets in the 21st century. In addition to educational activities, children conduct their social activities online. Almost 75% of the teens have their own smartphones and 25% admit to being “Constantly Connected” to the internet/social media. Other alarming screen time statistics are: Children between the ages of 8-18 spend approximately 7.5 hours/day on entertainment media, 4.5 hours/day watching TV and 1.5 hours/day on computer.

Along with the convenience of these devices comes the health hazards. There is a direct link between the amount of screen time and obesity. Studies have shown that teens who spend 5 hours or more watching TV are 5 times more likely to become overweight. Exposure to light from the screen can disrupt sleep and lead to poor quality of sleep. Children who sleep with their mobile devices are at increased risk of insomnia.

Good quality sleep is important for the well-being of children since it affects memory, mood, learning, and academic performance. A study published in the Journal of American Academy of Pediatrics in 2014 highlighted the fact that 50% of children experienced some level of sleep curtailment and they concluded that chronic sleep deprivation from infancy to school age was directly associated with a higher overall rate of obesity in childhood.

With the growing evidence about the direct link between sleep hygiene and obesity, it is particularly important to understand the nature of the causation. Poor sleep quality and obesity may both manifest altered brain functions that control sleep and hunger. The parts of the brain that regulate the circadian rhythm also regulate hunger and satiety. Other possible mechanisms for weight gain are sleep deprivation as it makes these children consume more calorie-dense foods, more snacking, and eating at nighttime. Hence sleep and weight is dependent on each other at different levels. Several observational studies have pointed out that there is an upward trend in body weight as the duration of sleep time declines.

Screen time exposure is one of the well-documented causes of obesity in the tech-centric modern world. There are adverse physical as well psychological consequences from increased screen time exposure. From physical problems like eye strain to psychological problems like ADHD-like behavior, there is a wide gamut of health issues caused by excessive screen time. Neuropsychological changes in the mind lead to addictive behavior to these gadgets similar to substance abuse behavior. There is growing evidence to point to the fact that increased screen time in children can be a hamper in the development of a healthy and strong mind. A weak mind, an anxious mind, or a depressed mind is more vulnerable to emotional eating, thereby setting a path for weight issues.

American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no more than 2 hours/day of screen time. How do we implement it when we all lead our lives in a virtual world? The first step is being a good role model as a parent by limiting our screen time, to have dedicated family time without any electronic devices. There should be a curfew for gadget use in the house. Encouraging children to put away their electronic devices and teaching them to explore the beauty of the outdoors will foster a healthy lifestyle.

There are screen time reduction tools available to help families make meaningful use of the media time without hurting their health.

  1. Family Media Plan designed by AAP is a tool to customize your family media plan.
  2. S.M.A.R.T. (Student Media Awareness to Reduce Television) A Curriculum for Youth by NIH, is a program to motivate children to spend less time on TV.
  3. WE CAN! (Ways to Enhance Children’s Activity & Nutrition) is a national movement designed to give parents and caregivers a way to help children 8 to 13 years old stay at a healthy weight by increasing physical activity and decreasing screen time.

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