Summer’s Screen Time Challenge


When kids reach for the tablet, smartphone or television remote for easy entertainment, research suggests this could be a one-way ticket to obesity, aggressive behaviors, increased consumerism and decreased standardized test scores. Thomas Robinson, MD, MPH, director of the Center for Healthy Weight at Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital, has tips for parents looking to trade screen time for summer fun—and they’re tips you can use in any season.

The #1 tip? “Have family rules about screen time,” said Robinson, professor of pediatrics at the Stanford School of Medicine. “More than anything else, just having rules about how much, what, when, where, and with whom is the most important step in making screen time and technology work for your family, instead of against it.”

The #1 rule? “Set a screen time budget,” said Robinson, who also holds the Irving Schulman Professorship in Child Health. “Based on our studies, I suggest keeping screen time to no more than seven hours per week – or one hour per day – including TV, DVDs, video games, computers and smartphones. Parents can then work with their kids to determine how they’re going to stay within their budget.”

What’s the relationship between excessive screen time and childhood obesity?

Dr. Robinson: It’s a true cause-and-effect relationship. Of course, the more time kids spend with screens, the less time they are spending being active. However, the best evidence supports two primary mechanisms – that kids eat more while watching screens, and that exposure to food advertising leads to an increased eating of high-sugar, high-fat and calorie-dense foods. Lots of research shows that kids – and adults – eat more when distracted by a screen. So one of the most important things a family can do is eliminate eating while watching TV and other screens.

Can you explain screen advertising’s powerful effect on kids’ food choices?

Dr. Robinson: In one of our early studies, we found that even a 30-second exposure to an ad for a novel product – one that a child has never seen before – creates brand preferences.

In another study, young children tasted identical food side-by-side – such as French fries, nuggets, juice, or baby carrots – but one was on a McDonald’s wrapper and one was on a plain wrapper of the same color and material. When asked if the two foods tasted the same or whether one tasted better, they overwhelmingly said that the food they thought was from McDonald’s tasted better. Believing that it was from McDonald’s actually altered their perceptions of taste.

Do images on smartphones and tablets also increase this craving?

Dr. Robinson:
There is not sufficient research yet, but the expectation is that advertising and product placements in video games, computers, and smart phones are actually more powerful than television. You have to engage and interact with them more, giving them more of your attention in order to click the screen, pay attention to pop-ups, etc. It’s one way that advertisers keep your attention and encourage you to engage with their product.

Your research has shown that having a television in a child’s room can decrease a child’s standardized test scores. Can you explain?

Dr. Robinson: There are a number of potential factors. We know that screen time distracts children while studying and also may substitute for time spent in more educational activities. Children who have a television in their room may spend less time on reading and other scholastic activities. In addition, having such easy access to a television can disrupt or reduce a child’s sleep, which will affect their ability to study and pay attention.

How do parents set boundaries if the schools are using tablets and technology to teach?

Dr. Robinson: The same qualities that make children’s use of screen technologies potential risks for health and developmental problems also make these gadgets potentially helpful for teaching and learning. So, we encourage parents to focus their children’s screen time on educational resources rather than entertainment and game playing. Regarding budgets, in our studies we allow parents to define educational screen time, and to exclude that helpful activity from their screen time budgets.


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