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Screen time, fat time and parenting

Please note: This post is not addressed to parents of children who are overweight due to medical conditions.

NICE released some new guidelines this week about the need to reduce screen time to help combat the continuous rise in overweight and obesity seen in adults and children alike. I don't think this connection came as a surprise to anyone - we all know the term 'couch potato'. As someone who works a lot in paediatric dietetics, I consistently see that the children who have too much screen time are also those who suffer with overweight and obesity issues. Though I like NICE's quite obvious, but important, statement about it all and I also like their encouragement of a Mediterranean diet and its associated eating habits as a good place for people to aim to, I do think if they continue down this road of encouraging great food and less screen time, they're barking up the wrong tree.

All sensible, and even not so sensible, people know doughnuts and TV make you fat.

The real question needs to be; why are people having so much screen time (TV, video games, smart phones, ipads)? The worst, most compounding issue about screen time for adults and children is that when your eyes are on the screen you're even more likely to mindlessly eat empty calorie laden rubbish. And even more importantly, why are our young people spending so much time in front of screens instead of moving, reading, socialising etc?.

There are many answers - challenging ones (e.g. how much more dangerous our society appears, parents stressed out working long hours, broken families), but one is sadly down to parenting. It is a sensitive subject but quite frankly, and perhaps judgementally, I see far too much weak parenting going on in the lives of my young patients who are overweight and screen bound all hours of the day and night. When I ask the parents if they have considered limiting screen time, they look at me as if I have three heads!! This is even with children who are younger than ten. Are parents afraid of upsetting them? Too tired and worn out to have a confrontation and an upset child? Bottom line, all spirited children check the limits of authority in order to understand the path of life - it is ok, and very much encouraged, for parents to say 'no' to imbalanced choices; even if it induces tears and outbursts. Nip it in the bud.

This is all highly concerning. These children are the next generation and many are already overweight (with no medical problem which predisposes them to it) by the time they are five or six. The nature of fat cells is that once overweight, especially in childhood, it is very challenging to become slim and to stay slim (for biochemical and behavioural reasons). Many children we see are already showing strong risk factors for heart disease, type 2 diabetes and cancer. Parents are, of course, very sensitive about the issue but I urge all parents to address it, for the sake of the child.

Addressing the problem NEVER means isolating that child in the family unit as the 'fat' one who needs to have a different lifestyle to the rest of the family: This is the most damaging route to take. Parents should take an honest, raw look in the mirror about which behaviours and choices they may be unintentionally modelling and start making changes as a family unit together: step by step. This is not about blame, this is about trying to do the best for your child, even if it inconveniences you. A child's right to health is a given; adults do not have the right to endanger a child's health once knowingly doing so. People may not like it, but too many trips to Mc Donalds IS endangering your child's health and it is not ok. You shouldn't travel in a car without putting your child in a safe car seat, you also shouldn't pump your child full of inflammatory sugar and fats just because they cry for it (largely thanks to should-be-illegal junk food marketing to children).

Those of us who are parents know all too well how parenting can sometimes be such a slap in the face with regards to having to deal with our own bad habits in order to try and give the child a better chance at a happy life. This issue is no different.

The best way for a young child to become slim is to not have to lose weight, but rather, stop gaining and allow themselves to grow into the weight they have already attained. And forget weight loss as a goal, think of the outside world your child can discover when screens are removed.

So yes, screen time does lead to fat time. And while screen time is not the only cause of overweight in young people, excess screen time which can cause fat time is in the hands of the parents and guardians of these children. It may be hard to accept, but it is the truth.

P.S. I recently attended the East of England Paediatric Diabetes Games (to build connections and promote physical activity) where the food being served were bacon butties and there was an ice cream van. I expect that was because people thought that is what the children would like to eat. Let's just say I hope some better choices are on offer next time. Sigh.


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