Family Matters

How to Keep Your Kids Away from the TV During Meals

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Eating meals in front of the television can lead to obesity, but keeping children away from noshing while viewing can be a challenge.

So Dr. Catherine Birken, a pediatrician and associate scientist at the Hospital for Sick Children Research Institute in Toronto, designed a study to see if a short and practical intervention at a child’s 3-year-old check-up could be successful at slashing screen time.

During the visit, parents received counseling and tips for reducing television viewing. Unfortunately, the intervention did not wind up reducing screen time by the children’s next visit, but it did help the families to eat fewer meals in front of the TV, according to research published in the journal Pediatrics. Although it wasn’t the main desired outcome of the research, Birken still considers it a significant achievement because evidence suggests that kids who eat in front of the TV aren’t as sensitive to food cues that signal fullness.

“There is strong experimental data that shows that reducing the number of meals in front of the TV may be the key to understanding screen time and obesity,” says Birken.

(MORE: Background TV: Children Exposed to Four Hours a Day)

The research tracked 160 children in the TARGet Kids! primary care research network, which encompasses seven large pediatric and family medicine practices in Toronto. Those children whose parents were counseled by research assistants, either before or after their children were called in to see the doctor, reduced the number of meals they ate in front of the television by two meals per week. In general, the children were eating 1.5 meals a day accompanied by television chatter.

During the 10- to 15-minute counseling sessions, parents were encouraged to remove TVs from their kids’ bedrooms and to declare meal time a television-free zone, among other things. Children were also read a Berenstein Bears book called Too Much TV.

“Children are being bombarded by screens,” says Birken. “It may not be that surprising that a simple and short intervention in the primary care practice could not overcome the degree to which screen time is overwhelming in our society.”

As childhood obesity rates continue to rise, pediatricians are increasingly casting about for ways to reverse the trend. Incorporating public-health messages about healthy eating into children’s well visits is an obvious solution, but Birken says those efforts need to be refined. “This is telling us that this is not enough,” she says. “Young children come in to their primary care physician a huge number of times, but there’s less than ideal evidence about what physicians should be doing in terms of promoting healthy growth. We have to figure out what works and when it works.”

Further evaluation may look at who should counsel parents — doctors’ time is already at a premium, so the task could fall to nurses — and examine ways to broaden the message via day care centers and public health clinics. “If we can figure out what works and focus on a small number of key messages and repeat those messages in different settings, that’s probably what will make a difference,” says Birken. And with obesity rates, especially among children, continuing to rise, every intervention helps.

MOREWatching TV Steers Children Toward Eating Junk

7 comments
PamPeekeMD
PamPeekeMD

There is much to be said for teaching Mindful Eating BEFORE food addiction starts, and it cannot be taught in front of television or any other screen.  It can only be taught within the context of supervised meals (a.k.a., family meals), where the adult(s) can draw a child's attention to how good nutritious food tastes, when they might be feeling full or encouraging them to wait 10 - 20 minutes for satiation to kick in.

There is also growing evidence that TVs and other devices in a child's bedroom shortens the amount of time s/he sleeps.  The hormone leptin, which signals fullness to the brain, is only manufactured when we are asleep.

The tragedy of not being WITH kids as they eat is that parents risk food addiction. Substance abuse researchers say that the brain adaptation that result from regularly eating so-called hyperpalatable foods -- food that layer salt, fat and sweet flavor, proven to increase consumption -- are likely to be more difficult to change that those from cocaine or alcohol because they involve many more neural pathways.

No responsible parent would cut a line of coke for his/her child.  What and how we eat is as important as keeping our children safe from drugs.

Rickackerly
Rickackerly

How to Keep Your Kids Away from the TV During Meals?I have to ask a stupid question: Why is it hard? What does it say about adult authority that we can't each think of 50 ways to have no TV at meal times. (and it's just just about obesity either--of course.) What's wrong with this entire line or reasoning. I am sure "foodandart" agrees with me.

nontech
nontech

I agree with the commenters below that since TV is so obviously unhealthy for our children in such a great variety of ways, what we should be thinking about is how to reduce the amount of time they spend watching TV overall. Throwing our TVs away is one way to guarantee that this will happen.

To think more about the effects of technology on our lives and our world, take a look at my blog, non tech, at www.nontechblog.com.

PAPARAZZINC
PAPARAZZINC

@TIMEHealthland You should keep your kids away from the TV 24/7...

pendragon05
pendragon05

Shouldn't these kids be outside playing instead of watching tv????

MamaDoc
MamaDoc

Teaching moderation seems important in every realm, be it TV, eating, other behaviors.  Our children have 45 min of screen time allowed per day, to spend as they choose (TV or educational computer activities).  We have never dreamt of feeding them in front of the television, save occasional popcorn with a movie!

foodandart
foodandart

You know, the simplest and most effective way to reduce children's unnecessary exposure to TV at any time, is just to not have one in the home. I grew up without TV as a part of my childhood diet and !!~shock~!! I stayed thin and fit into adulthood - still am and still have no TV. Really, is watching dross like the Jersey Shore or the X Factor really *that* important?