ROUND-UP: The impact of electronic media on kids (JAMA Pediatrics) – experts respond

Mon Mar 17, 2014

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EMBARGO LIFTED 07:00 AEDT Tue 18 Mar, 2014

TV, computers and video games bad for kids (JAMA Pediatrics*) & Media monitoring mums keep kids from piling on the pounds, but dads are a pushover (JAMA Pediatrics**) – experts respond

Two studies in JAMA Pediatrics look at the impact of electronic media on kids. The first, an Australian-led study of more than 3,000 children, found that watching TV, using computers and playing video games between the ages of two and six had an adverse effect on children’s wellbeing as measured two years later, including emotional and peer problems, self-esteem, emotional well-being, family functioning and social networks. The risk of emotional problems and poorer family functioning increased with each additional hour of TV, gaming and computer use.

The second study looked at the impact of maternal monitoring of screen time on BMI. US and Swedish scientists found mums who monitor the time their kids spend watching TV and playing video games have slimmer children than those who don’t, but the same isn’t true if it’s dad who’s in charge of the monitoring.

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Professor Tim Olds is from the Division of Health Sciences, University of South Australia

“For many parents of teenagers sequestered in darkened bedrooms for hours and days, surrounded by arrays of internet-wired screens ranging from matchbox to cinema size, the issue of the potential harm of exposure to electronic media is a burning one.

Most studies are consistent in showing that exposure to electronic media increases the risk of overweight and obesity, low levels of physical activity, and poorer adult health.

The most recent offering comes from a large international study, IDEFICS (Identification and Prevention of Dietary- and Lifestyle-Induced Health Effects in Children and Infants). It is interesting in that it deals with younger kids (four years old at baseline), tracks them for two years, and draws data from eight European countries. It finds a significant, but weakish and patchy, pattern of psychological harm at six years associated with family media use at four years. The unhappy outcomes are things such as emotional well-being, peer relationships and self-esteem.

Our own data from a number of Australian studies have shown similar patterns. What is the link? It may be that electronic media replace social interaction, displace healthier activities like physical activity and sleep, or encourage poor nutritional habits such as grazing (snacks) and guzzling (soft drinks).

It may also be that media use is a marker of poorly regulated households, with low health literacy and suboptimal parenting practices. In one of our studies, having a television in the child’s bedroom was associated not only with poor well-being, low physical activity, more snacking, less sleep and increased fatness in the child, but also with increased fatness in parents. 54 per cent of low-income families had a TV in the their child’s bedroom, compared to 21 per cent in high-income families.

Interestingly, kids rate electronic media use as one of the most enjoyable things they do. In a sample of 11-12 year olds, videogames rated higher than any other activity (8.5 out of 10), compared to an average of 7.4 for all activities. Computer use rated 7.8, and TV 7.6. Compare this to 7.9 for sport, 6.9 for reading, and 6.1 for study. The only light at the end of the tunnel seems to be the flicker of an iPad.”

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Associate Professor Li Ming Wen is from the School of Public Health, University of Sydney

“There is a growing body of evidence that supports the association between children’s screen time (television viewing time plus use of computers and electronic games) and childhood overweight and obesity.  However, the effect of screen time on children’s psychological and social well-being remains unclear.

Hinkley’s study [Early Childhood Electronic Media Use as a Predictor of Poorer Well-being: A Prospective Cohort Study] findings using a prospective cohort study with 3,604 children are important in the field of child health. Increased screen time may also lead to poorer well-being outcomes. Therefore, determining the factors that influence children’s screen time is critical for promoting healthy weight and social and emotional wellbeing among children.

Parents have an important role in developing and shaping their child’s sedentary behaviours through role modelling and creating a home environment that reduces screen time. Tiberio’s study [Parental Monitoring of Children’s Media Consumption: The Long-term Influences on Body Mass Index in Children] is very timely in examining the influences that parents’ role may have on children’s weight status thorough parental supervision and control of child screen exposure. However, the significance of the study was limited due to a small number of study participants and unrepresentative study population. A further exploration of factors influencing children’s screen time, the paternal role in particular, is crucial in preventing childhood overweight and obesity and improving children’s well-being. In the meantime, parents’ busy schedules in a modern society and lack of time with their children needs to be acknowledged.” 

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*Early Childhood Electronic Media Use as a Predictor of Poorer Well-being: A Prospective Cohort Study, Hinkley, T. et al., JAMA Pediatrics, published online March 17, 2014, doi:10.1001/jamapediatrics.2014.94

**Parental Monitoring of Children’s Media Consumption: The Long-term Influences on Body Mass Index in Children, Tiebrio, S. et al., JAMA Pediatrics, published online March 17, 2014, doi:10.1001/jamapediatrics.2013.5483