Q: I just saw that you published a study about childhood obesity and watching TV. From the article I read, it sounds like kids who watch TV and commercials for high-calorie foods are more likely to be obese—but that playing video games and using the computer aren’t a problem. Does this mean I should limit my kids’ screen time to only video games and the computer?
–Confused about consumption, in MA
A: Dear Confused,
Good question! Our study compared how middle school students use media to their body mass index (BMI),
a measure which relates how heavy they are to how tall they are. We found that among those who watch TV, use computers, and play videogames, those who spent a higher percentage of their time paying attention to TV had higher BMIs. There are a few possible explanations for this finding:
- Kids see commercials for snacks, fast food, soda, and other high-calorie, nutritionally questionable foods on TV.
- You use your hands to play video games or use a computer, but your hands are free when you watch TV. Kids often snack while watching TV, frequently on the kids of foods they see advertised.
- When kids are paying attention to the TV, they are too distracted by what they are seeing and hearing to realize that their stomachs are actually full.
Our takeaway messages, then, are for kids to skip commercials or watch commercial-free programming and to avoid eating in front of the TV.
Even though we didn’t find an association between higher BMI and video games and computers, though, it’s still possible that their use is related to obesity as well (in addition to a host of other outcomes of concern, from social isolation to aggression to addictive behavior). Our study just found that attention to TV carries the greatest risk. More research using larger groups of kids is necessary before we can draw any final conclusions about the relative effects of video game and computer use.
Our study also didn’t find that watching TV makes kids overweight—we just found that it’s one of the factors that can increase risk, just as smoking cigarettes increases risk for lung cancer but doesn’t automatically mean you’ll get it. Benefits and risks exist with all media, and we hope that by knowing the risk factors associated with how we use certain media, people will chose media mindfully, reducing risk and making their media use as positive as possible for children and for themselves.
Enjoy your media and use them wisely,