Television has long been part of the American cultural landscape — for decades, millions have spent their evenings basking in the glow of screens in their living rooms. But in the last couple of decades, screens of various kinds have spread to the point where it seems they’re everywhere. Between desktop computers at work, laptops and tablets at home, and smartphones in pockets and purses, it’s difficult to let 15 minutes go by without looking at at least one screen, and possibly several. So how much do Americans actually look at screens? And how strong is the link between screen time and health outcomes such as overweight and obesity (both of which are linked to developing Type 2 diabetes)?
A study released last week gives a detailed picture of the TV and computer habits of young teens, aged 12–15. Conducted by the National Center for Health Statistics, part of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the study used data from national surveys conducted in 2012. According to an article on the study published by USA Today, only 27% of teens in the target age group met the American Academy of Pediatrics’ recommendation that they get no more than two hours of combined TV and computer screen time each day. Furthermore, 7% of the teens watched five or more hours of TV each day, and 5% used a computer for five or more hours. Fully 98.5% reported watching some TV every day, and 91.1% reported using a computer outside of school. Habits differed slightly by race, with 29% of white, 26% of Hispanic, and 20% of black teens getting two hours or less of screen time. Girls were more likely than boys to meet the two-hour recommendation, at 29% versus 25%.
The study found a clear association between screen habits and being overweight or obese, especially when it came to watching TV. While 31% of normal-weight teens got two hours or less of daily screen time, only 23% of overweight teens and 20% of obese teens did. On TV watching alone, the study found that 70% of normal-weight teens watched two hours or less each day, while only 64% of overweight and 53% of obese teens met this threshold. These results do not mean, of course, that screen time causes overweight or obesity: Both could possibly be the results of a separate cause or causes, or being overweight or obese might even be the cause of more screen time (for example, being overweight might make someone less likely to participate in after-school athletics).
If screen time is a problem for teens, among adults it appears to be an even worse problem, based on TV-watching statistics alone. According to an article published earlier this year by the New York Daily News, teens ages 12–17 watch less TV than any other age group: about three hours a day, on average. Adults ages 18–24 watch just over three hours a day, and children ages 2–11 watch about about three-and-half hours. Among adults, TV watching tends to rise steadily with age: In the 25–34 age group, daily viewing rises to about four hours, in the 35–49 age group it’s nearly five hours, in the 50–64 age group it’s just above six hours, and in the 65-plus age group it’s slightly more than seven hours. These numbers represent only watching live TV; the average American also spends 32 minutes a day watching time-shifted TV (such as using a DVR or streaming service), an hour on a computer using the Internet, and an hour using a smartphone for various uses. The article, which uses data from the media ratings company Nielsen, also notes differences in TV habits based on race: Blacks tend to watch the most TV, followed by whites, Hispanics, and Asian Americans.
Do you think the proliferation of screens in our daily life has made us less active, or are they simply incidental to, or possibly the result of, the less active culture we’ve become? If you became more physically active at some point in your life, did your screen time drop, or did it stay about the same (or rise)? Is it possible — or desirable — to keep watching screens as much as we do while increasing physical activity, such as by placing treadmills in front of the TV or computer? Is screen time problematic for any reasons other than physical inactivity? Leave a comment below!