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Media Use And Obesity Among Children

Children spend more time sitting in front of electronic screens than any other activity besides sleeping. The average time spent with various media (televisions, computers, video games) is nearly four and one half-hours per day among two to 17 year olds. (Annenberg Public Policy Center, 1999)

In the last national survey, 25% of children were overweight or at risk for obesity. These figures more than doubled in one generation (Troiano, 1998). Further the incidence of Type II diabetes in children, the diabetes linked with obesity, has increased significantly in the past few decades.

Did you know?
  • The incidence of obesity was highest among children who watched four or more hours of television a day and lowest among children watching an hour or less a day. These results were reported in a study by researchers at the University at Buffalo, Johns Hopkins University, The National Cancer Institute, and the Centers for Disease Control (Crespo, 2001).
  • A more recent study found that children who watch more than three hours of television a day are 50 per cent more likely to be obese than kids who watch fewer than two hours. These researchers conclude that "more than 60% of overweight incidents can be linked to excess TV viewing" (Tremblay, 2003).
  • Obesity puts children at risk for a variety of health problems. Type II diabetes, or adult onset, is closely connected to weight. One study found that rates of this disease in children, quadrupled, rising from 4% in 1982, to 16% by 1994 (Squires, 1998).
  • According to the Centers for Disease Control, 60% of overweight children between the ages of 5 and 10 years of age already have at least one risk factor for heart disease, including elevated blood cholesterol, blood pressure or increased insulin levels. These are the factors that lead to hypertension, diabetes, and atherosclerosis (Centers for Disease Control, 2000).
  • Lack of physical activity is a large contributor to this problem. Physical education, once an important part of every child's school day, has been cut back at many schools. Less than half of U.S. schoolchildren have access to daily physical education classes (Squires, 1998).
  • Researchers in one study found that 20% of US children participated in two or less vigorous physical activities per week (Andersen, 1998).
  • A strong relationship was found between playing electronic video games and childhood obesity in school-aged Swiss children by researchers from The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia and the University Hospital Zurich (Stettler, 2004).
  • In analyzing the data from a national survey between 1988 and 1994, researchers found that the 26% of children who watched four or more hours of television a day had significantly more body fat than those who watched less television. The more time children spent watching television, the greater their weight increase (Andersen, 1998).
  • Another study found that 60% of the overweight in children, ages 10-15, may be due to excessive television viewing (Gortmacher, 1996).
  • Dietz in his study also found that the incidence of obesity increased by 2% for every additional hour of television watched (Dietz, 1985).
  • In another study of preschoolers (ages 1-4), a child's risk of being overweight increased by 6% for every hour of television watched per day. If that child had a TV in his or her bedroom, the odds of being overweight jumped an additional 31% for every hour watched. Preschool children with TVs in their bedroom watched an additional 4.8 hours of TV or videos every week (Dennison, et al., 2002).
  • In related studies on significant health issues, researchers are finding that increased television viewing and subsequent lack of exercise affect children adversely in two areas.
    • Early childhood is a time of tremendous growth for children and the amount of physical activity positively affects the strength and amount of bone mass developed. A study of pre-schoolers found that girls who watched more television measured lower in the amount of hipbone density (Janz, 2001).
    • Another study on the relationship between metabolic rates and television viewing found that metabolic rates during television viewing were significantly lower than during resting periods for a group of obese and normal weight children, ages 8 to 12 years old (Klesges, 1993).
  • A study from Stanford University, researching the relationship between television viewing and weight, set out to measure body weight differences between two sets of third and fourth graders. One group was taught how to lessen their time watching television and playing video games. The second group received no such instruction and their TV and video game playing time went on as usual. For the first group, the instruction sought to establish a seven-hour a week limit on television and video game time. This would free up 14 hours to do something else. The results showed that the children who watched less television and played fewer video games had a significant reduction in measures of obesity, such as body mass index. The children who watched their usual amount of television had higher indicators of obesity. The only difference between the two groups was the amount of television and video game playing (Robinson, 1999).
  • Contributing to about 300,000 deaths per year, obesity is only exceeded by smoking as a cause of death. These two health issues are connected for some children. A Harvard University study found that children as young as nine were trying to control their weight by smoking cigarettes. Researchers found that 17% of girls and 15% of boys, between the ages of nine and fourteen, had experimented with smoking or were considering smoking because of their concern for weight control (Tomeo, 1999).

As obesity becomes more of a health problem for our children it is increasingly important to encourage children to become more active. Limiting screen time and removing televisions from bedrooms can be important first steps to encouraging children into a more physically active lifestyle.
The Centers for Disease Control outline the benefits of regular physical activity for children:

  • Improves strength and endurance
  • Helps build healthy bones, muscles, and joints
  • Helps control weight, build lean muscle, and reduce fat
  • Reduces anxiety and stress, increases self-esteem and overall energy level
  • May improve blood pressure and cholesterol levels
  • Prevents disease and promotes health

  • Annenberg Public Policy Center (1999). Media in the home. Access web site
  • Andersen, R. E., Crespo, C.J., Bartlett, S. J., Cheskin, L. J., Pratt, M. (1998, March 25). Relationship of physical activity and television watching with body weight and level of fatness among children. Journal of the American Medical Association, 279, 938-942.
  • Centers for Disease Control (2000). Physical activity and youth. Available online at (visited 10/11/01).
  • Crespo, Carlos J. DrPH, MS; Smit, Ellen, PhD; Troiano, Richard P., PhD, RD; Bartlett, Susan J., PhD; Macera, Caroline A., PhD; Andersen, Ross E., PhD (2001, March 15). Television watching, energy intake, and obesity in US children. Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine, 155, 360-365.
  • Dennison MD, Barbara A., Erb MS, Tara A., and Jenkins PhD, Paul L. (2002, June). Television viewing and television in bedroom associated with overweight risk among low-income preschool children. Pediatrics, 109, 1028-1035.
  • Dietz, W. H., & Gortmaker, S. L. (1985). Do we fatten our children at the television set? Obesity and television viewing in children and adolescents. Pediatrics, 75, 807-812.
  • Gortmacher SL, et al (1996, April). Television viewing as a cause of increasing obesity among children in the United States, 1986-1990. Archives of Pediatric Adolescent Medicine, 150, 356-362.
  • Janz, Kathleen F. EdD, Burns, Trudy PhD, Torner, James C. PhD, Levy, Steven M. DDS, Paulos, Richard, Willing, Marcia C. MD, Warren, John J., DDS (2001, June). Physical activity and bone measures in young children: The Iowa bone development study. Pediatrics, 107, 1387-1393.
  • Klesges, Robert C. PhD, Shelton, Mary L. MS, Klesges, Lisa M. MS (1993, February). Effects of television on metabolic rate: Potential implications for childhood obesity. Pediatrics, 91, 281-286.
  • Robinson, Thomas N. MD, MPH (1999, October 27). Reducing children's television viewing to prevent obesity. JAMA, 282, 1561-1567.
  • Squires, Sally (1998, November 3). Obesity-linked diabetes rising in children. Washington Post, pZ07, accessed web site: (visited 10/11/01).
  • Stettler, Nicolas, Signer, Theo, and Suter, Paolo (2004, June). Electronic games and environmental factors associated with childhood obesity in Switzerland. Obesity Research, 12, 896-903. Accessed: (visited 7/12/04).
  • Tomeo, Catherine A., Field, Alson E., Berkey, Catherine S., Colditz, Graham A., Frazier, A. Lindsay (1999, October). Weight concerns, weight control behaviors, and smoking initiation. Pediatrics, 104, 918-921.
  • Tremblay, M.S., Willms, J.D. (2003). Is the Canadian child obesity epidemic related to physical inactivity? International Journal of Obesity, 27, 1100-1105.
  • Troiano, Richard P., Flegal, Katherine M. (1998, March). Overweight children and adolescents: description, epidemiology, and demographics. Pediatrics, 101, 497-504.

Last revised: 7/12/04

©2005 National Institute on Media and the Family.