The Université de Montréal (UM) researchers took a look at the TV consumption, dietary, and academic habits of nearly 2,000 Quebec boys and girls. Born between 1997 and 1998, these children came under observation when they turned five months old.
When their child turned two years old, the parents made a report on their son/daughter's TV viewing habits. Eleven years later, the adolescents themselves were interviewed about their eating habits, their academic performance, and their current TV consumption.
"Not much is known about how excessive screen exposure in early childhood relates to lifestyle choices in adolescence," said Professor Linda Pagani, the corresponding author of the study. "This birth cohort is ideal, because the children were born before smartphones and tablets, and before any pediatric viewing guidelines were publicized for parents to follow."
Researcher Isabelle Simonato theorized that watching too much TV encourages toddlers to be sedentary. She believed children who developed a preference for effortless leisure activities would not become interested school and other non-leisure activities. (Related: Experts warn that kids who watch TV see more ads for junk food, consuming on average 500 more snacks per year than kids who don’t.)
According to the UM study, for every hour a toddler was allowed to watch TV past the first one, there was a matching increase of 8 percent consumption of unhealthy foods at age 13.
Early-TV adolescents binged on television, french fries, processed meats and cold cuts, white bread, soft drinks and other unhealthy drinks, snacks, and desserts. In contrast, they ate 10 percent less breakfast.
Furthermore, every additional hour of TV viewing as a toddler increased an adolescent's body mass index (BMI) by 10 percent. An early-TV adolescent also put less effort in the first year of secondary school, which inhibited their motivation to succeed in later years.
"This study tells us that overindulgent lifestyle habits begin in early childhood and seem to persist throughout the life course. An effortless existence creates health risks. For our society that means a bigger health care burden associated with obesity and lack of cardiovascular fitness," warned Professor Pagani.
The AAP issued new guidelines that encouraged parents to limit their children's daily TV viewing to one hour. The researchers compared their data with the data of children who watched less than one hour of TV each day.
Again, they found out that children who exceeded the AAP-set TV viewing guidelines were far more prone to unhealthy eating habits, skipped breakfast on weekdays, suffered from a higher BMI, watched even more TV, and were poor students.
"In preschool, parents use screen time as a reward and as a distraction. They establish quiet 'idling' at a teachable moment when children could actually be learning self-control," warned Pagani.
"Using distraction as a reward to help children behave in situations where they should be learning self-control sets them on a trajectory where they will seek out distraction when faced with demands for cognitive effort."
The researchers concluded that a system that rewarded distraction and mental sloth will decrease the enthusiasm that a young person should feel for education. In order to ensure adolescents develop healthy behaviors, they recommended that parents follow AAP guidelines and limit TV viewing for young children.