On the run, children burn energy and tend to stay slim, while those who prefer to sit while playing video games or watching TV tend to do the opposite. Child obesity remains a major challenge worldwide. Some health officials are concerned about the effects of extended sitting before a screen affects children. A team of scientists from leading universities in the UK set out to find answers.
What they found was similar to what others had found: that the connection between big screen and obesity was not a straight line because someone who is obese is like that for many reasons.
A serious health problem
The World Health Organization calls obesity in children “one of the greatest public health challenges of the 21st century”. In 2016, almost one in five children and one in five young people was overweight or obese – ten times as many as 40 years ago.
In the United States, 18.5% of children and teenagers were between the ages of 2 and 19 between 2015 and 2016.
The WHO estimates that at least 2.6 million people die each year as a result of obesity. They list the following main conditions:
- Cardiovascular disease (mainly heart disease and stroke)
- Musculoskeletal disorders, especially osteoarthritis
- certain types of cancer (endometrium, breast, and colon)
Food selection, activity selection
The WHO attributes the increasing obesity rate mainly to people who are physically inactive but eat more foods high in fat and sugar, and low in vitamins and other important nutrients.
With the advent of mass appeal video games – Pong, Tetris, and the ubiquitous Pac-Man – people of all ages have found themselves in front of a screen. The Center for Media and Child Health reported that 80% of teens have a console and at least half of them play it for 2.5 hours a day.
British researchers examined the responses of 16,376 children born between 2000 and 2002. Data were collected at ages 5, 7, 11, and 14 years. Apart from the BMI, the information came from the self-reporting of a guardian or the subject himself, depending on age. The participants were almost equally divided between men and women. These researchers did something different from other researchers – they examined the possible link between obesity and video games from childhood to old age.
The authors wrote that their results showed a direct cause-and-effect relationship.
The study’s lead author, Rebecca Beeken, PhD of the University of Leeds School of Medicine, told the University of Leeds, “This study shows a possible link between play in young children and an increased likelihood of being heavier in later years.”
The paper itself says the results suggest a small, but not clinically significant, association between playing video games in early childhood and later obesity. These higher BMIs also did not suggest that it would result in any significant health problems. Other research cited by the research team showed that cardiovascular risk did not arise until the BMI rose much more than the Leeds team determined.
The researchers found that a number of other factors could be related to the higher BMIs observed – most notably, higher consumption of sugary drinks and poorer sleep plans. Dr. Beeken noted that “the consumption of sugary drinks and irregular bedtime may be partly responsible for the associated weight gain”.
Dr. Beeken concludes: “While the effect size is relatively small in the group as a whole, playing could pose a significant risk of weight gain for some children. However, we need to remember that obesity is complex and that this may be only a small piece of the puzzle. “
Sean Marsala is a Philadelphia, Pennsylvania-based health journalist. He loves technology, usually reads, surfs the internet, and explores virtual worlds.