Children on the run burn energy and tend to stay lean, while those who prefer to sit while playing video games or watching television tend towards the opposite. Childhood obesity remains a big challenge across the world; some health officials are concerned about the impact extensive sitting before a screen is having on children. A team of scientists from leading universities in the UK set out to find answers.
What they found was similar to what others had found: that the connection between extensive screen and obesity was not a straight line, because someone who is obese is that way for many reasons.
A serious health problem
The World Health Organization calls childhood obesity “one of the most serious public health challenges of the 21st century.” In 2016, nearly 1 in 5 children and adolescents were overweight or obese — 10 times the number there were 40 years ago.
In the US, 18.5% of children and adolescents 2-19 years old in 2015-2016.
The WHO estimates that at least 2.6 million people die from obesity-related conditions every year. They list the following major conditions:
- cardiovascular diseases (mainly heart disease and stroke)
- musculoskeletal disorders, especially osteoarthritis
- certain types of cancer (endometrial, breast and colon)
Food choices, activity choices
The WHO attributes growing obesity rates mainly to people who are physically inactive but eat more foods with high fat and sugar levels and few vitamins and other important nutrients.
With the introduction of mass appeal video games — Pong, Tetris and the ubiquitous Pac-Man — people of all ages have found themselves in front of a screen. The Center on Media and Child Health reported that 80% of pre-teens and teens have a console, and at least half of them spend 2.5 hours a day playing on them.
UK researchers looked at responses from 16 376 children born between 2000 and 2002. Data was collected at ages 5, 7, 11, and 14. Aside from BMI, the information came from self-reporting by either a guardian or the subject themselves depending on age. Participants were almost evenly split between male and female. These researchers did something different than other researchers — they looked at the potential connection between obesity and video game play from when the child was young to when he grew older.
The authors wrote that their results did show a direct cause and effect relationship.
The study’s lead author, Rebecca Beeken, PhD from the University of Leeds School of Medicine, told the University of Leeds that “This research shows a potential connection between gaming in young children and an increased chance of higher weight in later years.”
The paper itself says the results suggest a small but not clinically significant link between video game play in early childhood and obesity later on. Nor did these higher BMIs indicate that significant health issues would result; other research cited by the research team showed that a cardiovascular risk didn’t arise until there was a much larger increase in BMI than what the Leeds team found.
The researchers noted a number of other factors could be tied to the higher BMIs observed– more sugary beverage consumption and poorer sleep schedules, in particular. Dr. Beeken noted that “consuming sugar-sweetened drinks and going to bed at irregular times may be partly responsible for the associated increased weight.”
Dr. Beeken concludes that “Whilst the effect size across the whole group is relatively small, for some children gaming could represent a significant risk of weight gain. However, we need to remember obesity is complex, and this is potentially just one small part of the puzzle.”
Sean Marsala is a health writer based in Philadelphia, Pa. Passionate about technology, he can usually be found reading, browsing the internet and exploring virtual worlds.