Children, parents and screen-viewing: New evidence from the School for Policy Studies

Russ Jago from the Centre for Exercise, Nutrition & Health Sciences discusses a recent paper in the International Journal of Behavioural Nutrition and Physical Activity on parent and child screen-viewing and its implications.

Professor Russ Jago - Professor of Paediatric Physical Activity and Public Health

Professor Russ Jago – Professor of Paediatric Physical Activity and Public Health

A body of evidence has shown that screen-viewing (watching TV, using the internet, playing games consoles) is associated with adverse health effects such as increased risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes and obesity among adults. Recent research has also shown that screen-viewing is associated with adverse health effects among children and adolescents such as increased risk of obesity, higher cholesterol levels and poorer mental well-being. Collectively these findings indicate that there is a need to understand children and adolescent’s levels and patterns of screen-viewing among children and adolescents and identify ways in which the screen-viewing levels of children can be reduced. To date the bulk of this work has focussed on older-aged primary school aged children and adolescents with a lack of information about the screen-viewing patterns of younger children. This gap is important because previous work has shown that screen-viewing patterns are established in early life and then track through childhood into adulthood. Thus, there is a need to examine levels of screen-viewing among children at the start of primary school and the key factors that are associated with these patterns.

A relatively under-explored area of research is how patterns of screen-viewing may be shared between children and their parents. It seems logical that children who live in homes in which the parents engage in high levels of screen-viewing may be more likely to spend more time screen-viewing. Previous work has suggested that associations may exist between parent and child screen-viewing but again current research has been dominated by studies that have included older children and restricted to assessments of mothers’ TV viewing. These studies have not provided information on other forms of screen-viewing such as computer use or the roles of dads. These gaps are important as our previous work has shown that TV viewing is becoming a less dominant form of screen-viewing with other types of viewing such as tablet and smart-phones becoming more dominant.

In our current paper we attempted to look at these issues by examining the screen-viewing patterns of 1078 Year 1 (5-6 year old) children and their parents. These data are from the British Heart Foundation funded B-Proact1V project which was conducted in 63 primary schools in the greater Bristol area. We asked the parents to complete a survey reporting their own screen-viewing patterns and those of their child. In households in which there were 2 adults we asked the second parent to also report on his or her screen-viewing behaviour. We then examined levels of screen-viewing for the children and the parents and associations between parent and child screen-viewing. We found that 12 per cent of boys and eight per cent of girls in this age group watched more than two hours of TV on a weekday, with 30 per cent of parents exceeding this threshold. Figures were much higher at weekends, with 45 per cent of boys, 42 per cent of girls, 57 per cent of fathers and 53 per cent of mothers watching more than two hours of TV each day.

When we examined the associations between parent and child screen-viewing we found that children were at least 3.4 times more likely to spend more than two hours per day watching TV if their parents watched two or more hours of TV, compared to children whose parents watch less than two hours of TV. There were, however, different patterns for parents’ computer use in which daughters were 3.5 times more likely to use a computer at the weekends if their fathers spent more than 30 minutes a day doing so. There was, however, no evidence that sons were similarly influenced.

What do the results mean?

The results support our hypothesis that parents are strong influences on children’s screen-viewing behaviours and also show that it is not just mums but also dads who have important influences. These findings therefore imply that strategies which focus on reducing the screen-viewing habits of the entire family are likely to be important. Moreover, the results suggest that future behaviour change strategies need to focus on a broad range of screen-viewing behaviours and look at the factors that lead to screen-viewing and if they differ for weekdays versus weekend days. Over the next few months we will be analysing further data from this project to try and answer some of these more specific questions on how these behaviours are formed and how they might be changed.

Paper: ‘Cross-sectional associations between the screen-time of parents and young children: differences by parent and child gender and day of the week’ by R. Jago, J. Thompson, S. Sebire, L. Wood, L. Pool, J.Zahra and D. Lawlor in the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity, 2014, 11:54, doi:10.1186/1479-5868-11-54

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