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More evidence parents should monitor kids' media diet

By Andrew M. Seaman

NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - How parents monitor the television and video game habits of their children is tied to the kids' performance in school, their relationships with peers and their weight, according to a new study.

"It's a fairly small effect, but what's interesting about this study is because we tracked these children over time we see these effects build," lead author Douglas Gentile told Reuters Health. He is a psychologist at Iowa State University in Ames.

According to Gentile, the researchers can't say children will gain one fewer pound or get in one fewer fight for every show parents approve for their kids. But there are measurable changes that parents may not notice.

"They're small, tiny changes accumulating over time," he said.

He and his colleagues write in JAMA Pediatrics that past research has found that children spend more time engaged in TV, movies and video games than any other activity besides sleep.

Increased screen time, as it is called, has been tied to a number of problems among children, including poor sleep and school performance and excessive weight gain.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that kids older than two years only be exposed to one to two hours of screen time per day, at the most. The researchers note that many children exceed that recommendation.

For the new report, they used data from a previous study that involved getting children to be more active, watch less TV and eat more fruit and vegetables.

"Because we were able to collect so much rich data, it allowed us to go in later on and say, ‘Aside from the intervention, what else can we learn from these kids?'" Gentile said.

The study included 1,323 third- through fifth-grade students from Iowa and Minnesota. Data were collected from them, their parents and their schools.

Overall, the researchers found that parents restricting how much screen time kids watch, restricting what they watch and talking about the shows was linked to more sleep, better school performance and less aggression among kids.

Better sleep was also tied to lower body mass index scores among children. Body mass index, or BMI, is a measure of weight in relation to height.

Gentile cautioned, however, that studies have found that watching shows with children appears to magnify the negative effects of screen time. That may be because children believe parents are giving their stamp of approval to the content.

Instead, he and his colleagues write that setting limits on how much and what children watch and talking to them about what they watch are steps parents can take to encourage a better media diet for their children.

Although children may throw temper tantrums at first, Gentile said the benefits will start to accumulate.

"If parents start today it will have these positive benefits but these benefits take time to start accruing," he said.

SOURCE: http://bit.ly/17hF0sY JAMA Pediatrics, online March 31, 2014.

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