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Healthy Outlook

Monitoring Screen Time Helps Combat Childhood Obesity, and Improve Family Life Too

By Dr. Diane Dooley

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Have you ever taken your toddler to the store and been astounded when they seem to be on a first name basis with Lucky, their “friend” on the cereal box of Lucky Charms?

Most parents are surprised by the influence of marketing on their children. As adults, we’re immersed in a world of television, print ads, and logos, but we’ve learned to ignore a lot of it. Children, however, are prime targets for marketing because they don’t know an ad when they see one.

They want to eat those unhealthy foods because the ads say that they will be “cool” and have “fun” if they do. It’s no surprise that research links our exploding childhood obesity rates with the amount of daily screen time and marketing we allow our children.

The food and beverage industry in the U.S. spends nearly $2 billion each year on advertising to young children, and particularly targets Hispanic and African-American communities with ads for high-fat, high-sugar foods. They know that marketing works; the child’s pestering of parents will increase sales.

Marketing comes in many forms, but often it’s a result of lots of screen time, from television to mobile devices, computers to phones. The Kaiser Family Foundation reports that 8- to 18-year-olds devote an average of 7½ hours daily to entertainment media. Ninety percent of children under 2 watch television daily.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends limiting non-educational screen time to no more than two hours each day. Children under 2 should have none.

Excessive screen time often happens because we parents are every bit as involved with our devices as our kids. It’s amazing how many times I will walk into an examination room and find the parents and the kids each engrossed in their own separate screens.

When we become immersed in our laptop, phone, or tablet, we not only model a behavior for our children, we tune them out. Their attempts to interact become interruptions. We are pleased when they are quiet – left to their own (electronic) devices. This is unhealthy.

If you want to try to break the cycle of screen time, marketing and unhealthy foods, look at your home first and remove the intrusive impact of corporate advertising to your family. Choose TV stations that don’t allow marketing of unhealthy foods, such as public broadcasting, and limit the time your kids watch TV and use electronic devices.

Watch your own time and try to avoid electronic distractions. Find other family activities that are fun for kids, such as walking, visiting the park, or playing a board game. Place phone, computers and TVs in a central part of the house, where you can monitor their use. And keep the unhealthy food out of the household.

As a pediatrician and a parent, I recognize that kids take a lot of time and attention. The important thing is that parents should raise their children with their values, and not let others do the entertaining and persuading for them. In a world of smart phones, wi-fi and game consoles, we must all develop better habits to protect our children.

Healthy Outlook is written by the professional staff of Contra Costa Health Services, the county health department. Send questions to series coordinator Dr. David Pepper at For more health information, go to
About the Author

Dr. Dooley is a pediatrician at Contra Costa Regional Medical Center. This article was inspired by her work as an Executive Committee member for Healthy and Active Before 5 and their recently developed Marketing Policy. For more information, please visit