Is your child a serial snacker? Excessive device use may be the culprit. A new study finds a strong link between screen habits and eating habits.
The more time kids spend on their phones, tablets or TV screens right now, the more likely they are to develop binge-eating disorders by next year.
That was the finding of a study of 11,000 9- to 11-year-olds published this month in the International Journal of Eating Disorders.
What exactly is binge-eating?
Experts define binge-eating as eating to the point of discomfort, and experiencing guilt and disgust after meals or snacks.
Does everyone do that from time to time? Of course. To meet the criteria for a clinical diagnosis of binge-eating disorder, those behaviours must occur at least once a week and persist for three months.
Contrary to popular belief, binge-eating disorder is not associated with vomiting, as in bulimia. But its effects are serious, and if untreated can lead to problems ranging from constipation and acid reflux to Type 2 diabetes.
What did the study find?
The research looked at data gathered between 2016 and 2019 as part of the US-based Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development Study.
Researchers found that each additional hour spent on social media was associated with a 62% higher risk of developing the disorder a year later.
Kids were asked about their screen habits, while parents supplied details about their eating behaviours. Different platforms and types of engagement yielded very different results, with social media showing the strongest link to binge-eating and gaming the weakest (but only for boys).
Researchers found that each additional hour spent on social media was associated with a 62% higher risk of developing the disorder a year later, and TV viewing with a 39% risk.
How do screens influence eating habits?
“Children may be more prone to overeating while distracted in front of screens. They may also be exposed to more food advertisements on television,” explains study lead author Dr. Jason Nagata, an assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of California.
While distracted by screens, children may lose track of time and get out of touch with the physical sensations of fullness.
Constant exposure to unattainable body ideals on social media is also believed to intensify risk, leading kids to develop negative body image and “eat their feelings” by consuming unhealthy quantities of food, especially snacks.
Researchers speculate that gaming didn’t appear to increase the risk - although only among boys - because it was a less passive, and more socially interactive, form of screen-time.
What can parents do to help?
Structuring children’s screen-time to prevent excessive time with devices is probably the best defense against this risk.
With customisable parental controls, parents can limit or block access to screens during meal-times to encourage more regular, mindful eating habits.
Because the link between mindless snacking and mindless scrolling seems to be a strong one, you might also consider a house rule prohibiting snacking while online. (But good luck with that one!)
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