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Too Much TV as a Toddler Linked to Unhealthy Adolescence, Study Finds

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Two-year-old-friendly television includes some of the most innocent characters, including Barney, Elmo, and Teletubbies. These programs might seem completely harmless for kids, but watching TV at a young age might have a negative effect on their health later in life. A new study reports that watching too much TV as a toddler can lead to poor eating habits and school performance by adolescence.

The study, conducted by researchers at Université de Montréal's School of Psychoeducation and published in Preventive Medicine, analyzed almost 2,000 Quebec children born in 1997 and 1998. The researchers studied them from five months to 13 years of age. When the children turned 2, their parents described the kids' TV routines. When they turned 13, the adolescents detailed their own eating habits and performance in school.

The researchers found that teenagers who watched more TV as infants consumed more unhealthy foods, including French fries, soft drinks, energy drinks, and dessert. For every hourly increase in watching TV as a toddler, there was an 8 percent increase of unhealthy habits later in life. The study also reports that each hourly increase led to a higher body mass index, more screen-time use later in life, and poorer performance at school.

"This study tells us that overindulgent lifestyle habits begin in early childhood and seem to persist throughout the life course," Linda Pagani, lead author of the study says in a release. "An effortless existence creates health risks. For our society, that means a bigger health care burden associated with obesity and lack of cardiovascular fitness."

Pagani notes the report is important because the children studied grew up in a time before smart phones and tablets. It was also a time when there weren't screen-viewing guidelines, so adults didn't have recommendations to follow. "They were raising their children with TV and seeing it as harmless," Pagani says. "This makes our study very naturalistic, with no outside guidelines or interference — a huge advantage."

In 2016, the American Academy of Pediatrics published new instructions on how much screen time children should consume. They report:

"Rewarding distraction and low mental effort via entertainment will later influence a young person's commitment to school and perseverance in their studies," Pagani says. "So we believe the AAP guidelines of not more than one hour of TV viewing for young children is correct, to ensure healthy developmental trajectories in adolescence."

Due to the old, new, and ever-changing technology available to both kids and adults, it's unrealistic to ban technology in today's world. However, there are steps you can take to limit your child's screen time, according to the AAP.

1. Be your child's "media mentor."

If your child is watching TV, use it as a learning experience. "That means teaching them how to use it as a tool to create, connect, and learn," says Jenny Radesky, MD, lead author of “Media and Young Minds." Parents should understand "the importance of hands-on, unstructured, and social play to build language, cognitive, and social-emotional skills."

2. Appoint free-media family time.

Certain activities should be free of screens, including as dinner and driving. You can also designate parts of the house to be media-free, such as the bathroom.

3. Make sure the kids are cyber safe.

Continuously talk to kids about internet safety and expectations. Monitor what they're watching and help them understand how it applies to the real world. Children should understand people deserve respect both on and offline.

4. Monitor other aspects of their lives.

Place limits on how much media is being consumed, and be firm about it. "Make sure media does not take the place of adequate sleep, physical activity, and other behaviors essential to health."

"Parents can set expectations and boundaries to make sure their children's media experience is a positive one," says Megan Moreno, MD, lead author of “Media Use in School-Aged Children and Adolescents." "The key is mindful use of media within a family." The AAP offers a family media plan you can personalize to help you achieve your family's screen-time goals.

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