The more television children watched at age 10, the more they watched in middle age, according to a new report that suggests the need for earlier interventions to get kids off the couch.
Over the course of 32 years, researchers from University College London monitored the television-viewing habits of 9,842 people born in 1970 in England, Scotland and Wales, from when they were 10 years old until they were 42.
At the start of the study, parents reported whether their 10-year-olds watched TV never, sometimes, or often.
Of the 1,546 participants who reported watching more than three hours of TV a day at age 42, nearly 83 percent had watched television often at age 10, the researchers report in the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health.
The study also found that people who watched more than three hours a day of television in middle age were more likely to be in fair or poor health and to have had a father in a lower occupational class.
The study examined the habits of children who were 10 years old in 1980 – before smartphones, tablets, computers and videogames had begun to infiltrate kids’ lives, noted Christina Calamaro. She has studied the effect of technology on children at the Nemours Alfred I. duPont Hospital for Children in Delaware but was not involved in the current research.
“Once more, this affirms the importance of parental healthy behaviors, and it really does point to the need for early intervention, particularly in families with lower socioeconomic status that may not have access to safe playgrounds, a safe environment where children can go out and play and even healthy supermarkets,” she said.
“It’s really important to teach healthy lifestyles early on, from preschool to programs in the schools to every time that child walks into the healthcare office. Sometimes that message does turn that light bulb on for a father or mother or child to say, let’s talk about healthy living,” she said.
Study leader Lee Smith said by email that his findings support the case for early life interventions to prevent sedentary behavior, which can result from television viewing, in later life.
Prior research has shown that how parents monitor their children’s screen time is tied to the kids’ academic performance, their relationships with peers and their weight.
Earlier studies have also shown that children who spend much of their time staring at screens - especially televisions, which require no hands to operate – tend to gain more weight as they age.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children above age two be exposed to no more than two hours of television and computer screens a day. Researchers have found children frequently exceed the recommendation.
Studies have tied increased screen time to a number of problems in children, including excessive weight gain as well as poor sleep and school performance.
A growing body of research shows that prolonged sedentary behavior is detrimental to the health of adults, even physically active adults, the authors write. Earlier studies have associated TV viewing with an increased risk of type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and death from all causes, the study says.
The current study shows that adults tend to mirror their childhood activities, Calamaro said. But, she said, the patterns can be broken.
“It’s important to know that family and where we grow up will affect our life later on,” she said. “But you can turn off the television and go outside and be active, and that’s what people need to choose.”