Insights November 2010

Healthcare’s Unwinnable War against ‘Screen Time’

Neil Seeman


To many in the healthcare community, allowing young children and teens too much ‘screen time’ is a grievous parental offence. Pity that. Many of the greatest inventions of the last decade – and some of the most dramatic modern pro-democracy campaigns – have come our way thanks to teenagers and 20-somethings sitting for hours a day in front of their screens and tapping on keyboards.

If young people had been restrained from screen time exposure, Facebook wouldn’t exist (now worth an estimated $30 billion dollars); tens of millions of dollars wouldn’t have been raised for Haiti Hurricane relief via Twitter; the democracy movements in Iran and China would have never accelerated; and Barack Obama wouldn’t be in the White House.

Mr. Obama’s election to the highest political office in the world wouldn’t have been possible without effective Social Media campaigns convincing young people to vote. Yet his spouse, Michelle Obama, is, paradoxically, anti-screen time. Her obesity report suggests it causes obesity.

Many concerned about obesity equate screen time with the sedentary act of television watching, and focus on pre-schoolers. A new report from Pooja S. Tandon and colleagues, in the Journal of Pediatrics, finds that pre-schoolers are exposed on average to 4.1 hours of screen time each day. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no more than 1-2 hours of ‘quality programming’ daily.

We must face reality: The war against screen time is unwinnable. Screen time for young people will rocket with the surging popularity and ever-lower cost of iPads and other tablet technology. Some of the most popular applications for iPads (such as Blue Block and Cut the Rope) are hits with children ages three and up. Today the fastest-growing (and top) application on Facebook is Farmville – a farm simulation game for teens and pre-teens (with 62 million active users).

Today’s access to screen time is the happy result of global innovation, not bad parenting. Witness China, now struggling to address its own public health challenge of obesity, with more than 25 percent of its population classified as overweight or obese. In 1989, 63 percent of China’s households owned a television set. Today almost all do. In the poorest parts of India, also burdened by obesity, cell phones – with screens – are more commonplace than in urban parts of India. For poor people living throughout South Africa, cell phones save lives thanks to public health HIV prevention messages emitted via SMS.

Yet we in the West tend to blame screens for obesity: get rid of these screens, and, magically, obesity will disappear. In one UK government anti-obesity campaign, a primitive man was shown evolving from a hunter-gatherer to a couch potato lounging in front of the television. Cause and effect is not so simple. Obesity is an intensely complex biological, sociological, psychological and genetic phenomenon. Many eat too much because food is plentiful, tasty and inexpensive – and many act on impulse, choosing the immediate gratification of our appetites to the detriment of tomorrow’s waistline.

Yes, preschoolers should not be sedentary; they should be interactive and energetic. But curtailing our use of television sets and tablets and cell phones and computers will not significantly reduce obesity rates. Blaming television for making us fat is like saying the time it took to walk to the TV from the sofa (before the TV remote controller was invented) was what kept us so thin in the 1940s.

The trouble, dear Brutus, is not with screens, but with ourselves. We all know plenty of people tethered to their Blackberries and Netflix screens who remain, nevertheless, slim. Short of making all food taste awful, there are no global answers to the challenge of obesity. Part of the answer, I think, lies in thinking of obesity as an individual issue. Solutions need to be individualized. Certainly don’t blame screens; they have done, and will do, vastly more good than bad.

About the Author(s)

Longwoods essayist Neil Seeman, Director of the Health Strategy Innovation Cell at Massey College, is co-author of the forthcoming XXL: Obesity and the Limits of Shame and is working on a book about commercializing research.


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