By Jamie Bologna
We’ve known for a long time that obesity is among the greatest health risks confronting Americans.
We also know that the challenge for many people starts early. In fact, children who are overweight or obese between the ages of three and five are five times more likely to be overweight or obese as adults.
Now, there’s new research out today that adds to our understanding about one risk factor for childhood obesity: televisions in kids’ bedrooms.
Radio Boston’s Anthony Brooks spoke with Diane Gilbert-Diamond, an assistant professor of Community and Family Medicine at Dartmouth and the lead author of a new study on childhood obesity and television. The conversation, edited:
AB: Professor Gilbert-Diamond, we’ve known for some time that TV viewing is an established risk factor for childhood obesity—what further information did you uncover in this study?
We found that even after accounting for TV viewing, having a TV in the bedroom is associated with about one extra pound of weight gain a year.
Just having the TV there, not even necessarily turning it on, just having it there?
We presume that kids with a TV in their bedrooms are watching them. But having the TV in the bedroom, no matter how much TV they’re watching, is associated with more weight gain.
Any idea about what’s behind this connection between weight gain and having a TV in the bedroom?
Our study couldn’t look at the mechanism directly, but we think that what’s going is that kids with a TV in their bedroom have more disrupted sleep. So, for instance, they may stay up later watching TV or may have poorer quality sleep after seeing the bright screen or watching exciting TV shows late at night.
Every phone, every laptop, every tablet can now be used as a TV. Is the lesson here that parents should really lay down much stricter rules about screen time in their bedrooms?
I think that’s exactly the lesson, that if we want to help kids to grow up healthy we really should reduce the amount of television and other media that they’re watching — and really work to get it out of their bedrooms.
Another theory that you had is that food advertising could be working on kids as well, when they watch TV?
We couldn’t test this directly in our study, but we think that when kids are watching television in their own bedrooms, they have much more control over the programming that they’re seeing. Kids watch about 30 food ads a day, and if they’re controlling what shows they’re watching, they’re probably getting food ads that are directed to their demographic. Those ads may be more effective at promoting unhealthy eating behaviors in those kids.
If the best advice for parents is to really reduce and limit screen times in bedrooms, what’s your hope in terms of targeted education campaigns that might be implemented now to encourage parents to keep TVs out of their kids’ bedrooms?
That’s a great question. Right now about 60 percent of adolescents have TVs in their bedroom. Forty percent of kids have TVs by the age of six. So I really think that parents, pediatricians, and teachers should all send the message that TVs don’t belong in the bedroom.
You just said something that sort of floored me — 40 percent of children have TV in their bedroom by the age of 6. That’s amazing.
It’s staggering isn’t it?
CommonHealth wrote recently about health and socio-economic factors that could skew findings like these. Does this study raises similar questions in your mind? Could that not also be a factor here, that in fact the kids that have TVs in their bedrooms are also likelier to be from poorer families and therefore at greater risk for obesity anyway?
We did adjust for socio-economic status in this finding. So we believe that even after accounting for the household income, and the parents’ education, there still is an effect of having a TV in the bedroom. But I do want to add that children from lower income backgrounds, and children who are non-white, are more likely to have a TV in their bedroom. So they are more at risk for having this obesity risk factor.
We seem to be getting this message from so many directions: limit screen time.
My colleague, who’s a pediatrician, says, ‘Get the TV out and the kids will kick and scream for an hour a day but then it will be gone and the fight will be over. Just get the TV out of the bedroom, it’s a one-time decision.’