Nutrition Column – Making Screen Time Count

You’ve heard it repeated many times: Most Americans are overweight. Now obesity is creeping into childhood, affecting about 20 percent of children. What used to be adult medical concerns are now starting in childhood, setting youth up for heart disease, diabetes and other problems connected to obesity.

One of the biggest contributors to this new trend toward childhood obesity is the increase in screen time. The average child today watches four or more hours a day of television. Since nearly half (48 percent) of all families with children have all four of the latest media staples – TV, VCR, video game equipment and computer – the likelihood is that a lot of time is spent sitting in front of a screen.

So how can you minimize screen time without wreaking havoc in your home?  The American Academy of Pediatrics suggests finding fun, positive activities that children enjoy and smartly manage their screen time. Here are some things you can do.

– It’s all about balance. Talk to your child about the importance of balancing screen time against active time. Phrase your suggestions in a positive rather than a punitive tone.

– The parent makes the rules. If necessary, set a limit on the amount of screen time each child can have. And most importantly, be consistent. If you subscribe to the recommendation of no more than two hours a day of screen time, be certain that’s what happens.

– Make television less important. Keep the television or the computer out of the child’s bedroom. If it’s already there, remove it. It’s difficult to monitor screen time when the child is isolated from the rest of the family.

Meal time is family time. Research has shown that families that eat together eat healthier meals. Make it fun to have family conversations and share the day’s happenings without the interference of television.

Be a positive role model. If you enjoy hours of screen time yourself, it’s going to be hard to convince your child about the importance of limiting screen time. Kids love spending time with their parents, and screen time interferes with that special time together.

– Media influences. Have you ever thought about the negative influence television commercials and pop-up ads on computers can have on food choices? Explain that it’s only a sales pitch to buy that product so the company can make more money.

– Get active. Another fun thing you can do with your child is use the time during commercials to get active. Do jumping jacks or toe touches to help get the wiggles out of your kids and help them burn calories, too. Help them understand why it’s not a good idea to be a couch potato.

– Monitor. There are some simple things you can do to minimize screen time in your home. Go to this Web site and print off a screen log: Post the screen log where your family members can readily keep track of their viewing time. Aim for less than two hours per day for each child. Once you know how much time your family members spend watching TV or videos, playing video games and using it for surfing the Internet, you can decide what steps to take next. Remember that all the time spent in front of a screen is potential time that could be invested in physical activity.

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by Shirley Perryman, MS, RD, Food Science and Human Nutrition Specialist, Colorado State University, Cooperative Extension