A study published Monday suggests a link between screen time and weight gain in American preteens. Researchers, who published their findings in Pediatric Obesity, found that each additional hour spent on screen time was associated with a higher body mass index in 9-10–year-olds one year later.
What’s more, researchers said, is that the weight gain may not just be the result of sedentary behavior, but also that exposure to social media and “unattainable body ideals,” could lead to subsequent overeating.
The data was pulled from 11,066 preteens who are part of the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development Study. They were asked questions pertaining to time spent on six different forms of screen time including television, social media, texting, YouTube, video chatting and video games. The team noted in a press release posted to EurekAlert.org that the study occurred prior to the pandemic.
Researchers said at the start of the study 33.7% of the children were considered overweight or obese, and a year later, it increased to 35.5%, “a proportion that is expected to rise in the late teens and early adulthood.”
“The study was conducted prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, but its findings are especially relevant for the pandemic,” Jason Nagata, MD, lead study author and assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of California, San Francisco, said. “With remote learning, the cancellation of youth sports and isolation, children have been exposed to unprecedented levels of screen time.”
Nagata noted that while screen time can provide benefits like education and socialization, parents “should try to mitigate risks from excessive screen time” including increased sedentary time and decreased physical activity.
“Parents should regularly talk to their children about screen-time usage and develop a family media use plan,” he said.
Previous studies on childhood obesity have found a rise in prevalence during the COVID-19 pandemic. One analysis from the American Academy of Pediatrics, which evaluated pediatric appointments from January 2019 to December 2020 found obesity levels rose among all age ranges, but was more pronounced in patients ages 5-9.