Researchers testing out a program aimed at reducing the amount of time kids spent in front of screens have conceded that, after one year, the program didn't help children and their parents to make much progress towards that goal. Yet, looking at the bright side, the researchers, who wrote up their findings in a study published this week, noted that kids who participated in the program did cut down on the number of meals they consumed while staring at the television.
Dr. Catherine D. Birken, the lead author, hailed the finding, explaining that those who eat in front of the television tend to not only consume more in a sitting, but also make food selections that are less than healthful. Birken noted that it could be just such food choices that could be responsible for the link between increased screen time for kids, and higher rates of childhood obesity.
In addition to its association with obesity, the study's researchers say screen time – whether it is in front of a television, computer or video game console – has been linked to children having problems with language development and behavior, and their likelihood of cigarette smoking.
"These are really important health outcomes in young children," said Birken. "So we need to understand what works and what doesn't."
Although previous studies have had mixed results in their attempts to limit children's screen time, those that were more promising tended to target children at around the pre-school age — that is why Birken's group selected this age group to try their practical approach to wean kids from their televisions. The results of this attempt were published in the latest issue of the Pediatrics journal.
For their study, published in the journal Pediatrics on Monday, Birken and her colleagues recruited three-year-old children from a network of clinics around the Toronto area during their annual checkups. The children and their parents were randomly assigned into one of two groups. In an intervention group of 64 children, the parents were told about the health impact of screen time on kids and how to reduce their children's hours. Some of the techniques included removing televisions from the kids' bedrooms and not allowing them to eat with the television on.
Both the parents and the children received additional training, mainly about internet safety and parental rating systems used by the television networks in Canada.
When the children were assessed again at the end of the year, the researchers didn't find any differences in rates of television use between two groups. Nor were there any differences detected between the BMI scores of the control and the experimental group. Yet, there was one statistically significant finding. Kids in the experimental group ate substantially fewer meals in front of the TV than those in the control group.
At the start of the study, each group of kids ate about two meals with the television on daily. A year later, that number remained the same for the control group, but fell to about 1.6 for the intervention group.
That, the researchers note, works out to be at least two fewer meals per week in front of the television.
"I don't think there is much harm in turning the TV off during meals. I think that is a good message either way," said Birken.