Screen time: do family habits affect childhood obesity?

Helping your child maintain a healthy weight is important as they grow, but one in five UK children is obese. Research from the University of Glasgow argues there’s a relationship between family eating habits, screen time and childhood obesity. Here, Alison Parkes PhD, Senior Investigator Scientist, who worked on the study, explains 

Eating and screen time: best kept separate?

Our eating habits have become so much less formal than they used to be, with fewer set mealtimes involving families eating together round a table. Members of families may eat at different times, and there is less distinction between meals and snacking. Food is more likely to be consumed while watching TV or browsing the internet, often away from the dining table; and we’re all familiar with family members eating together, but all busy on mobiles or tablet computers.

Research from our team at the MRC/CSO Social and Public Health Sciences Unit, University of Glasgow, suggests that these family eating habits could damage your child’s health. Researchers linked young children’s unhealthy diet and being overweight with having a TV in their bedroom, informal meal settings and less positive social interaction at mealtimes.

Screen out the screens

This is not the first study to find a clear link between watching TV and being overweight or obese. Our team believes there are several reasons why the two might be linked, over and above the common understanding that there’s a relationship between being less active and sleeping less and being overweight.

First, eating while watching TV interferes with our normal regulation of food intake: we do not pay close attention to what we are eating, and take longer to feel full.

‘it is all too easy to eat too many crisps, sweets and other energy-dense foods when you are in front of a screen’

Consequently it is all too easy to eat too many crisps, sweets and other energy-dense foods when you are in front of a screen. Second, TV and other screen-use at meals may also make family communication more difficult, and this reduces the opportunity to help children develop healthy eating habits. Third, the more children watch TV, the more they are exposed to TV food advertising. 

What parents can do

Looking further into what was happening, the study reported that having a TV in children’s bedrooms was particularly harmful, probably because children were snacking away from parental control.

It is all indeed food for thought.

Allowing young children a bedroom TV or eating the main meal in front of the TV are now commonplace so many parents might want to think about whether how, and where, their child eats, is having an effect on their health.

Choosing to switch off the TV, move away from the computer, or put down a phone at mealtimes could improve your family’s health. 

Further reading

 

The advice published on Parent Info is provided by independent experts in their field and not necessarily the views of Parent Zone or CEOP.

First published: May 2016

Updated: ​May 2018

 

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