Childhood Obesity Epidemic Calls for Cutting Screen Time in Schools

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As the American Academy of Pediatrics issues new guidelines recommending the radical solutions of weight-loss drugs and even surgery for curbing childhood obesity, it’s worth revisiting an obvious but largely ignored treatment for poor health: turning off the screens.

Screen time skyrocketed for children during the COVID-19 pandemic—by 52% according to some studies and closer to 100% for adolescents in particular. Over the same period, children doubled their rate of body mass index increase, accelerating an already steep rise in the rate of childhood obesity, which was over 20% before the pandemic.

The AAP in fact does dedicate a small subsection of its extensive report to the association between screen time duration and unhealthy weight gain. More than just two hours of screen time a day is associated with a higher risk of becoming overweight or obese, the report notes. That limit is far surpassed by the average child, who now spends more than four hours a day in front of a screen.

The AAP guidelines attribute this increased risk of obesity to two factors. Firstly, screen time is by and large sedentary, leaving less time for physical activity. Secondly, the longer children spend in front of a screen, the likelier they are to encounter unhealthy food and beverage depictions that influence their own dietary choices.

These are good but modest warnings. If the only health risks incurred by sitting before a screen come from misleading advertisements and reduced bodily movement, parents might combat these simply by monitoring content and mandating exercise. A deeper dive into the AAP’s decades of research on children and media use, however, reveals more complex and intractable dangers.

In 1999, the academy issued a policy statement urging parents to “avoid television viewing for children under the age of two years,” a recommendation the academy has since reaffirmed. As infants’ brains develop and begin to perceive shapes and colors, they need tactile experience and face-to-face interaction to grasp the existence of other objects and, most importantly, people.

When infants encounter the mere images of objects and people on a screen, “their brains are incapable of making sense or meaning out of all those bizarre pictures,” a leading AAP pediatrician explains. Even worse, they stop trying to do so, in a sense becoming passive before the screen’s constantly changing overstimulation.

The effects can be lasting, “training [developing brains] in effect to expect intense input and making reality underwhelming or even boring by comparison,” to quote another specialist.

Is it any surprise that a child who has come to expect audio-visual overstimulation would also overeat? Or that a child for whom reality has become underwhelming may develop other diseases of despair?

Once we consider the associations between early childhood screen time and attention problems, psychological problems, and memory problems (including increased risk of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia in adulthood), obesity seems to be one strand in a larger web of maladies. Tackling screen time may get us closer to the root ill.

Yet, from a government policy standpoint, reducing screen time can be as elusive of a goal as reducing obesity. Is there anything one can do, other than raise one’s own children differently and encourage other parents to do the same? America (thankfully) is not China, after all. The law can’t dictate how children spend their time at home.

Given America’s wise constitutional limits, schools often take center stage in conversations about children’s health and safety, and with good reason. As the AAP’s new clinical guidelines emphasize, schools play a significant role in shaping choices and habits since children spend so much of their time there. If schools can use their influence to improve students’ nutritional diets, how much more might they influence their digital diets?

Educators could start by rethinking 1-to-1 computing, the practice of providing each student with a personal laptop or tablet that he or she uses all day at school and then takes home for further work and study (or entertainment) at night.

Introduced in the 1990s as personal computers became more affordable, 1-to-1 computing programs in schools had become commonplace by the beginning of 2020. The pandemic made them nearly universal. By the end of the 2020-2021 school year, 90% of school districts were providing PCs to every middle and high school student, and 84% were doing so at the elementary level.

Among the shrinking minority of schools that don’t employ 1-to-1 computing are, ironically, some of the most selective schools in Silicon Valley. The tech-free private schools popular among Big Tech executives have garnered media attention for years for their prohibition of screens in favor of cultivating familiarity with nature through gardening and taking care of farm animals as well as teaching handwork skills like knitting, cursive writing, and woodworking.

Other outliers include private and charter classical schools, marked by their commitment to primary documents over sweeping summaries, enduring texts over this week’s New York Times bestsellers, and the written and spoken word over screens.

Classical education advocates share the conviction that “the single most important technology continues to be the book,” as the chief academic officer of the charter school network Great Hearts recently quipped.

For school administrators and teachers who find ditching PCs too radical, however, implementing stricter cellphone policies might be a less daunting way to reduce student screen time. This fall, an elite boarding school in Massachusetts made headlines for banning smartphones on campus, permitting only flip phones or Light Phones that allow calling and texting but no email, internet, or social media.

After just a few months, both teachers and students reported improved well-being, citing better friendships and stronger classroom engagement—findings echoed by parents of North American yeshivas, where rabbis have enforced similar smartphone prohibitions.

Still, many parents balk at attempts to restrict student cellphone access, voicing concerns over safety and transparency. In the face of such pushback, it can be easy to forget how new and experimental 24/7 wireless connectivity still is.

As Henry Kissinger notes in his latest book, we are “in the midst of a transformation in human consciousness so pervasive as to be nearly unnoticeable,” embracing it “largely without understanding of its long-term effects.”

Before we embark on still newer experiments in treating recognized social ills like childhood obesity, it might be wise to reevaluate the experiments that are already underway.

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