25 May 2012

Want an unfit teenager? Let your child have lots of screen time

Colchester Campus

Children playing games consoles

Latest research into child fitness levels has revealed that children and adolescents are glued to the screen more than ever.

From watching TV and films to playing games consoles and using PCs, a study by researchers at Essex has shown the amount of screen time youngsters are getting is on the increase, which is having a major impact on their fitness. Currently about one in five children do not have the basic level of fitness associated with good health.

Dr Gavin Sandercock and his team from Essex measured the fitness of 1,500 children and then followed-up and re-measured their fitness levels as adolescents. They also measured how much screen time they were getting each day. In the US, Canada and Australia the governments have a recommended upper limit of two hours screen time for children, but the researchers found 28 per cent of English 11-year-olds exceeded this.

When the researchers, measured the children again at age 13, the number exceeding two hours a day screen time was 44 per cent and the number of unfit children had nearly doubled. When they looked at the factors which predicted which children did or did not become unfit adolescents they found that screen-time habits at age 11 were the best predictor – and proved more important than current physical activity levels.

Talking about the findings, which have been published in journal Preventive Medicine, Dr Sandercock said: “We were surprised by the findings. The accepted view is that what adolescents currently do most influences their fitness levels, but this study shows that childhood inactivity might be even more important than we thought.

“It didn’t matter if we took into account how active the children currently were or not, the most important factor for becoming unfit seems to be how much screen-time they got as children.”

Children reporting high screen time were nearly two-and-a-half times more likely to become unfit over the two-year period than those who reported being in front of a screen for less than two hours a day.

This latest research follows a previous study at Essex which showed that an increasing proportion of English children are being exposed to high levels of screen time, regardless of whether they come from wealthy or poor backgrounds.

The researchers at Essex are calling upon the government to introduce clear guidance on limiting screen time in children and adolescents.

“Many countries have clear guidance on this matter and while the Department of Health is good at telling us exactly how much exercise we need to get, the guidance to ‘minimise’ sedentary behaviour needs to be more explicit,” added Dr Sandercock. “There are now a number of studies in the UK and throughout the world showing that children who are stuck in front of a screen for more than two hours are much more likely to be unfit, overweight and suffer future health problems.”


Note to editors

For more information please contact the University of Essex Communications Office on 01206 872400 or e-mail comms@essex.ac.uk.

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