Toddlers Who Watch a Lot of TV Struggle as Teens

Toddlers Who Get Too Much Screen Time Struggle as Teens

I admit, when I did the research to write this post, it scared me. Because my kids watched FAR more than 2 hours of screen time each day as I’ve tried to build my business and work from home while they have been at home. Some days are better than others. And I’ve definitely tried to break it up and make them play games or outside or do something other than watching their devices.

It’s hard though, isn’t it? We have a lot of responsibilities and often, the easiest thing to do is to plop them with a show to entertain them.

Say you need to run errands and you want the toddler to calmly ride along. An Ipad is a great tool to help you. But more and more studies are starting to show that we’ve got to make sure we are paying attention to how much screen time those tiny tots are getting.

The ‘screen time’ debate is one we hear a lot about as parents of younger children. When is it safe for them to start watching TV? How much is too much time? Does it hurt their eyes? Will it result in them being overweight? There are endless reports and studies on this topic. A recently published study has added a new element to the discussion. Will too much TV during young childhood negatively impact them as a teen? And what are those impacts?

The results indicate that there is indeed a negative impact and it is big and seen in their dietary habits, weight, and even the behaviors as teens.

As a society, we are spending more and more time in front of electronic devices. While many parents do try to limit the time spent, the inclusion of more electronics throughout the house makes this challenging. It’s estimated that about 50% of children watch some sort of screen for almost 2 hours every day and even 1 out of every 3 infants in the United States has a television in their bedroom.

What is the problem with too much screen time for toddlers? First, it’s a sedentary activity – both physically and mentally. Too much television may disrupt development in the toddler brain. It’s also been shown to set kids up for wanting to do easier activities – both physically and mentally, later in life. Multiple studies have shown that toddlers who spend more time in front of electronics are at risk for having weight issues and higher body mass index (BMI) than other children entering the first grade. And that negative physical impact increases as they age. It was in response to these types of findings that the American Academy of Pediatrics reduced the television viewing guidelines to no more than one hour per day for children ages 2-5.

There’s not really much disagreement that too much screen time has negative impacts, but there was little research to indicate what happens later in life for kids that watch too much TV as toddlers. So, a Canadian team of researchers decided to study the long-term impacts, particularly school performance and dietary choices.

“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.” Prof. Linda Pagani

Linda Pagani led the study from the Université de Montréal in Canada. They accessed data on about 2,000 children born in Quebec from 1997-1998 collected by the Quebec Longitudinal Study of Child Development. These children had been followed since they were five months old.  The study relied on reports from parents documenting their television habits as children. At 13, they began to self-report dietary choices and behavior at school. The study mentions that this group of children is ideal to study because they were born prior to the age of smartphones and tablets and there were no real guidelines on screen time. The results of the study were published in the journal Preventive Medicine and indicated that excessive time watching television as a young child was associated with later risks of being overweight, poor eating habits, skipping breakfast, and lower engagement in school. For children age two, each additional hour of TV resulted in a significantly worse diet high in fast foods, energy drinks, sweet and salty desserts, and sugary drinks. Their level of effort, ambition, and performance rates in the first year of high school was lower.

Why does watching TV affect children like this? The hypothesis is that because toddlers learn to be sedentary and doesn’t encourage the child to make any effort. They tend to grow up preferring activities of leisure, that don’t require much effort. The biggest negative impact is the risk of obesity later in life and problems from not getting any cardiovascular fitness.

As noted by the research team, parents often use electronic devices as a way to preoccupy children, reward them, or distract them. But the problem with this, according to Prof. Pagani is that it teaches children to learn quiet “idling” when they could be learning self-control. As they grow, the will want distraction rather than have to make a cognitive effort.

“Rewarding distraction and low mental effort though entertainment will later influence a young person’s commitment to school and perseverance in their studies.”

In order to ensure healthy neuro and physical development, setting your children up for better health and success as they grow older, the researchers agree with the recommendation of limiting screen time for children ages 2-5 to no more than one hour.