Does Screen Time Make Babies Obese?

A research review found 95% of kids under age 3 look at screens for an average of 2 hours a day, and also revealed a correlation between obesity and screen time.

How important is screen time to the health of your baby? It could be very important, says a recent study published in the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity. Screen time might mean watching Barney on an iPad, playing an educational game on a game console, or completing level 247 on Candy Crush Saga and then letting the whole damn world know about it on Facebook. While all screen time is not created equal, researchers asked, “Can we make any generalizations about children who receive a lot of screen time?”

Researchers reviewed 29 studies conducted between 1990 and 2013. The studies were limited to children under three years old, and most of the studies examined American children. Researchers pulled some interesting tidbits from the review. Almost all children under three years old get some amount of screen time. Screen time increases with age, and by the three-year mark up to 95% of kids were getting an average of two hours of screen time each day.

The kids who received the most screen time also had something in common: they were usually obese. Several other factors also correlated with more screen time, including depressed or stressed mothers, obese mothers, and mothers who watched a lot of television.

But let’s be clear. This study does not say screen time will make your baby obese. This study says that if you examine the habits of obese babies, you’ll find that most of them get more screen time than their peers. That doesn’t mean the screen time caused the obesity. In fact, screen time was also found to be linked to ethnicity. We know that ethnicity, obesity, and socio-economic status are a tangled web, so it’s not fair to point the finger at screen time.

However, I’m not one to completely dismiss correlation. Let’s say someone told me, “We know that driving on Birch Street cannot give you hemorrhoids. That’s ridiculous. But the fact remains, 75% of people who drive down Birch Street get hemorrhoids.” Guess what? I’m staying away from Birch Street.

Another limitation of these studies is that the different types of screen use are all treated equally. Activities like watching a math tutorial are lumped together with watching season two of Jackass, and that doesn’t seem right. I also don’t buy the argument that just because it’s different than twenty years ago, it must be bad. It wasn’t long ago that kids didn’t get polio vaccines, and that seems to have worked out for everyone.

Right now we just don’t know enough to make many definitive conclusions about screen time. But these studies do give us reason to apply some scrutiny and planning to our children’s use of these potentially awesome tools.


1. Duch, Helena et al. Screen time use in children under 3 years old: a systematic review of correlates. International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity. 10:102, 2013. doi:10.1186/1479-5868-10-102.

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

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