Too much TV can lead to obesity and poor eating habits

27 February 2018
boy watching TV

Watching too much television at age two can translate into poorer eating habits in adolescence and poorer performance in school, a new Canadian study has found.

In the longitudinal study published in Preventive Medicine, researchers at Université de Montréal’s looked at nearly 2,000 Quebec boys and girls born in the late nineties.  

Parents reported on the children’s daily television habits at two years and then at age 13, the youths themselves reported on their own dietary habits and behaviour in school.

They found that every hourly increase in toddlers’ TV viewing forecasted poorer eating habits down the road and changes in weight and behaviour.  This included:

  • Every extra hour of TV viewing at age 2 led to an increase in poorer eating habits including the consumption of more processed, fatty and sugary foods.
  • Big TV watchers at 2, were less likely to eat breakfast at 13
  • Every hour increase of TV at 2 predicted a higher body mass index
  •  Big TV watchers at 2 participated in greater overall screen time at age 13
  • Extra TV viewing at 2 was associated with less effortful behaviour at school in the first year of secondary school, ultimately affecting performance and ambition.

Lead researcher Professor Linda Pagani says not much is known about how excessive screen exposure in early childhood relates to lifestyle choices in adolescence.

“This study tells us that overindulgent lifestyle habits begin in early childhood and seem to persist throughout the life course.

“An effortless existence creates health risks. For our society that means a bigger health care burden associated with obesity and lack of cardiovascular fitness.”

Professor Pagani says many parents often use screen time as a distraction or a reward, but this is not necessarily beneficial.

“Using distraction as a reward to help children behave in situations where they should be learning self-control sets them on a trajectory where they will seek out distraction when faced with demands for cognitive effort,” she says.

“Rewarding distraction and low mental effort via entertainment will later influence a young person’s commitment to school and perseverance in their studies. So we believe the American Academy of Pediatric’s guidelines of not more than one hour of TV viewing for young children is correct, to ensure healthy developmental trajectories in adolescence,” she says.

Read the full study on early TV viewing and later impacts here.