July 25, 2023
Watching too much TV during childhood has been linked to an increased risk of metabolic syndrome — high blood pressure, high blood sugar, excessive body fat and bad cholesterol — in adulthood, according to a recent study.
Children and teenagers between the ages of 5 and 15 who spent more time watching television and using screens had higher blood pressure, higher rates of obesity, less sufficient oxygen use while exercising and other risk factors for metabolic syndrome by the time they turned 45, researchers at the University of Otago found.
Researchers tracked more than 1,000 participants in 1973 and followed most of them, almost 900, until they were 45 years old. The majority of those who watched excessive television or engaged in sedentary behaviors between the ages of 5 and 15 were more likely to develop metabolic syndrome, which can lead to a higher risk of diabetes, stroke and heart disease.
"While, like any observational study, researchers cannot provide that the association between television viewing at a young age directly causes adult metabolic syndrome, there are several plausible mechanisms by which longer television viewing times could lead to poorer long-term health," said Bob Hancox, a professor of preventative and social medicine at the University of Otago and an author of the study. "Television viewing has long energy expenditure and could displace physical activity and reduce sleep quality."
The findings support previous studies indicating that sedentary behaviors during childhood may have a greater influence on adult health than adult behaviors. A 2019 study from the American Heart Association found that sedentary behavior is a leading risk factor for cardiovascular disease that can be changed at any age.
Disorders associated with metabolic syndrome often don't have obvious symptoms, though a large waist circumference, increased thirst, fatigue and blurred vision may be visible signs.
Preventing metabolic syndrome can start at any age with a heart-healthy diet, regular exercise, keeping a healthy weight and adhering to medical advice for overall health. For children, researchers say that limiting screen time and other sedentary activities in childhood can help prevent metabolic disease in adulthood.
The World Health Organization recommends that infants should not have any sedentary screen time. Children between 1 and 4 years old should have no more than one hour of sedentary screen time per day. The organization has not released guidelines for older children.
The American Academy of Pediatrics does not provide set screen time limits for all children and teens, because there is not enough evidence available to show significant benefits to specific time limits. Instead, the organization recommends that parents utilize resources from Common Sense Media emphasizing that the quality of the screen time is more important than the amount of time spent using screens.
"This really highlights the importance of critical development years," Dr. Veronica Johnson, a professor of internal medicine and pediatrics at Northwestern Medicine, told ABC News. "Screen time is inevitable. It's important to set some guidelines or expectations for your children as far as when you should be using the screens and how screens should be utilized."
There are plenty of ways to encourage quality screen time in children throughout early development. Parents can preview apps and programs before allowing children to use them, encourage interactive activities, discuss programs with children to encourage comprehension, use parental controls, play with them and brainstorm alternatives to screen time in order to support overall health and encourage healthier living, according to the Child Mind Institute.