Take Away Digital Devices to Increase Physical Activity in Children?

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Take Away Digital Devices to Increase Physical Activity in Children?

Jim Windell

            I am constantly amazed when I go through a neighbor in which children live to rarely see kids outdoors playing. I assume they are indoors watching TV or playing video games. On the other hand, my wife and I spend a lot of time with Amish families in the southwestern part of Michigan. Amish children are outside many hours a day playing and helping out with household chores.

           Children in Amish families have no televisions and neither smart phones nor iPads. I rarely, if ever, see an obese Amish child.  

           In general, being physically active promotes many benefits for children. Those benefits include better academic performance, better school attendance, improved behavior and higher self-esteem. In addition, active kids have fewer symptoms of anxiety and depression. And physically, active children have higher levels of cardiorespiratory fitness, stronger bones and muscles and are less likely to become obese.

           It is common these days for many young people to spend much of their time using digital screens, which may reduce their engagement in physical activity. The truth is though, that  children have always been sedentary during most of their awake time. This has been shown every time researchers have measured physical activity among different groups of children regardless of their cultural background and geography – these studies, though, were done before smartphones and gaming consoles became so ubiquitous.

          Thus, researchers continue to debate whether children’s use of screen media devices truly affects their engagement in physical activity or if screen time is just replacing other sedentary behaviors.

           A group of researchers from the University of Southern Denmark has attempted to end this debate by trying to determine if reducing screen time increases physical activity in children.

          For the study, researchers randomly allocated a total of 89 families (181 children, 164 adults) to one of two groups. Families allocated to the intervention group had to handover their smartphones and tablets for two weeks and reduce their recreational screen media use to less than three hours per week. Families allocated to the control group were instructed to continue with their usual screen media habits. Participant’s daily physical activity was objectively assessed over seven days using accelerometers mounted on the thigh and trunk at baseline and at two-week follow-up.

           The results?

           Children in the screen reduction intervention group had an average of 45 minutes more daily physical activity compared to children in the control group. The difference between the groups were largest on weekend days where children in the screen reduction group had an average of 73 minutes more physical activity compared to children in the control group.

          According to one of the authors of the study, Anders Grontved, Professor at the University of Southern Denmark, “The results of our trial clearly suggest that spending many hours using digital screens after school, kindergarten, and on weekends displaces some activities where children move more around. Thus, it is important that families with children create healthy and balanced use of screen devices in the home environment.”

          An additional finding, since adults were included in this study, was that physical activity did not increase for those adults who gave up all screen time. However, as the researchers point out, since adults are models for children, balancing screen time in the home for parents will teach children to also balance their use of digital devices.

          To read the original article, find it with this reference:

Pedersen, J., Rasmussen, M.G.B., Sørensen, S.O., et al. (2022). Effects of Limiting Recreational Screen Media Use on Physical Activity and Sleep in Families With Children: A Cluster Randomized Clinical Trial. JAMA Pediatrics,  doi:10.1001/jamapediatrics.2022.1519


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