Researchers looking for ways to prevent childhood obesity think that focusing on preschoolers is a good strategy since parents have control over kids' feeding and activity at that age.
What's more, they say children who learn to practice healthy behaviours are likely to stick to those when they become adults.
A team of doctors based on Toronto's Hospital for Sick Children randomly assigned 160 families to two groups. One received a short counselling session on the impact of screen time — time watching television, DVDs, videos or playing computer and video games — with tips to decrease it. Those in the control group received information about internet safety.
After a year, there was no difference in screen time between the two groups, which was the main purpose of the study, the researchers reported in Monday's issue of the journal Pediatrics.
"If you look at children now, it's not just the screen, it's handheld devices, it's video games," said study author Dr. Catherine Birken, a pediatrician and researcher at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto. "Children are bombarded and targeted to encourage screen time use."
This study took advantage of scheduled visits to doctors' offices at age three to test a short, practical intervention aimed at reducing screen time. Other researchers have used 18 hour-long counselling sessions at daycare.
"For this sort of intervention to be effective, you probably need to be bombarded," with anti-screen time messages from multiple sources like doctors and daycares, Birken said.
The group who received 10-minutes of counselling from research assistants ate fewer meals in front of the television, the researchers found.
Older children who eat meals while watching TV may not be able to read their own internal cues of fullness and may eat larger portions and less healthy foods, the researchers said.
A 2008 study from Quebec suggested nearly a quarter of children reported eating in front of the TV at least twice daily and those who snacked while watching had an increased risk of poor dietary habits like drinking pop.
Turning off the TV
In the Toronto experiment, the number of meals in front of the TV fell to about 1.6 in the counseling group compared with 1.9 meals in the control group.
The suggested strategies to reduce screen time included:
- Removing the TV from the child's bedroom.
- Encouraging meals to be eaten without the TV on.
- Budgeting the child's screen time.
Families were also encouraged to try a week-long TV turn off, when kids who spent days without television were rewarded with stickers.
The researchers also suggested non-TV activities like reading the book The Berenstain Bears and Too Much TV.
Complex behavior changes like reducing screen time may also require developmentally appropriate approaches that change with age, the researchers said.
They called the lack of a standardized way of measuring screen time in preschoolers an important limitation of the research.
The study was funded by a Pediatric Consultants Research Grant at Sick Kids.
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