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Screen Time in Childhood and Metabolic Syndrome in Mid-Adulthood: An Association Worth Watching

July 27, 2023

Excess screen time in childhood is associated with many adverse health outcomes, including sleep problems, obesity, and a range of mental health issues. In response to this, the American Academy of Pediatrics promotes limited screen time and encourages daily physical activity.  Despite how common excess screen time is, little is known about its long-term health impact. 

Macdonell et al from the Dunedin School of Medicine in New Zealand (10.1542/peds.2022-060768) share with us results from a longitudinal population-based cohort study of more than 900 members of a 1972-1973 birth cohort who provided parent or self-reported diaries of the duration of their television viewing at ages 5, 7, 9, 11, 13, 15, and 32 years. This cohort, with a remarkable 87% follow-up, was also evaluated for metabolic syndrome at age 45, based on having 3 or more of the following: elevated hemoglobin A1C, high waist circumference, high blood triglyceride, low HDL cholesterol, or hypertension.

The study found an association between excess amounts of television viewing between the ages of 5 and 15 years and metabolic syndrome at age 45 years, even after adjusting for television viewing during adulthood and physical activity over time. At 45 years, there was also an association with lower respiratory fitness and higher body mass index with elevated television viewing during early childhood and adolescence. 

What underlies this association and what should we do about it? The authors provide some interesting thoughts in the discussion section of their article. We also invited Dr. Pooja Tandon from the University of Washington and Seattle Children’s Research Institute for an accompanying commentary (10.1542/peds.2023-062183). Dr. Tandon points out some limitations of the study, including the changing media landscape since this study was conducted, and the increased screen time associated with the COVID-19 pandemic. Dr. Tandon calls on us to advocate for interventions to limit screen time in childhood via individual, family, school, community, and policy actions. Link to this study and commentary and take to heart the information about the associated long-term complications of metabolic syndrome with children’s screen time.

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