Obesity, health issues for youngsters overdoing screen time, researchers find

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Preschoolers who spend too long in front of screens are more likely to be obese, visit the doctor more often and have poorer physical motor skills, according to the first New Zealand research analysing screen-time use.

Researchers from AUT and Auckland University analysed screen-time data from children taking part in the Growing Up in New Zealand study, which is tracking the development of 6000 children until they turn 21.

The study found that at two years old, the average time spent using screens was about one-and-a-half hours a day. That increased to two hours a day as children reached the age of four.

In 2017, the Ministry of Health released the first national screentime guidelines for under fives.

The ministry recommended no sedentary screen time for children under the age of two and less than an hour each day for children aged between two and five.

Children from more deprived areas, those with more televisions in the house, non-European New Zealanders, and those with parents who did not regularly enforce screen time rules were all consistently less likely to meet the Ministry of Health's screen time guidelines at all ages.

However, families that had screen time rules, but did not always enforce them, were more likely to exceed the guidelines compared with having no rules at all.

The researchers found that children who did not adhere to the screen time guidelines at the age of two were more likely to be obese, have more illnesses, more visits to the doctor, lower physical motor skills, and exhibit hyperactivity problems when they reached four-and-a-half years old.

Those trends persisted when adjusted for ethnicity, gender and socio-economic deprivation.

Time spent on screens tended to increase as preschool children age, with the largest increases seen with portable electronic media, like computers, tablets, smart phones and gaming devices.