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kids on smartphonesNearly every adult with a smartphone occasionally worries about screen time, especially if you’ve experienced your own tiny (or big) addiction to Instagram, a game, or those texts you send your best pal throughout what’s supposed to be a slightly more productive day. 

But if you’re a parent, you get to multiply those worries by however many phones are on your family’s plan. This is because you already know screen time has a few drawbacks, however much it can keep the kids occupied while you make dinner, drive, or wait for your table at a restaurant. 

Excessive screen time has already been linked to eye strain, sleep deprivation, and depression, plus an increase in sedentary behavior for kids and adults alike, all of which put a strain on your overall health and well-being.

Now, a scientific review recently summarized in Evidence-Based Dentistry points to a connection between kids’ screen time and how prone they are to consume foods that cause cavities. 

While researchers admit the strength of evidence was moderate, they found that 15 of 19 studies on children under age 12 showed  

a significant positive association between television and/or total screen-time viewing and poor quality diet including lower intake of fruit and vegetables and higher intake of unhealthy foods.

kid on computerWhile the studies didn’t directly address the reasons behind this screen time/diet connection, the American Psychological Association reports that food and beverage advertising targeted at children greatly influences their food choices. And when it comes to online marketing, kids might not even be able to tell the difference between a game, a show, or an ad.

Children find it harder to recognize advertisements on websites than they do on television; 6 year olds only recognized a quarter of the ads, 8 year olds recognized half of the ads, and 10 and 12 year olds recognized about three quarters of the ads.

This is partly because regulations have yet to catch up with technology. Most advertisers don’t bother identifying their online content as ads, particularly heavily branded “advergames” that continually reinforce their product message to kids, “who have a remarkable ability to recall content from ads to which they are exposed.”

And you can guess what kinds of “food” is marketed: mostly high sugar breakfast cereal, fast food, candy, sweet and salty snacks, and sugary drinks – the perfect fuel for caries (decay). Fewer than 10% of the ads promoted healthier products.

And why do parents and guardians buy this stuff? An FTC report says it comes down to “pester power.”

sugary breakfast cerealOne company’s research indicated that food ads and packaging were key to children asking for a food item, and 75 percent of parents bought a product for the first time because their child requested it. Another company found that in-store advertising campaigns using child-targeted, character-based themes outperformed those using mom-targeted themes.

The rest of this sad story kind of tells itself. 

When kids are playing advergames or watching movies and shows, many of which promote junk food while also introducing kids to weight-based stigma, that exposure leads to more junky snacks and drinks and less time being active. 

So what to do? 

First, figure out with your family what a healthy amount of screen time is for everyone. Then, depending on how your kids find their screen time (phone, tablet, desktop, TV), decide how you want to manage that access

Next, try talking with your kids about advertising and nutrition. Share with them how ads are kind of a game to trick people into buying things they don’t need. Watch an ad or play an advergame together. Maybe they’ll even laugh at how obvious the online ploys are once they know what to look for.

family walkFinally, focus on habits you want to reinforce. Find a screenless activity to do together, like making healthy snacks or meals, going for a walk outdoors, or playing an old-fashioned board game. Might we even suggest cleaning between your teeth and brushing together? If anything, it’s a great chance to make sure everyone takes a full 2 minutes getting to every quadrant! 

And – here’s the hard part – set a good example yourself. Put your own phone away, take a critical look at that shopping list, and dust off the hiking boots. Don’t waste time feeling guilty about getting lost in the virtual reality vortex. Just jump back into your engaging and rewarding real life!

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