The reason: Kids who eat their meals in front of the tube add extra hours to their weekly viewing time, according to a study published in the June issue of the Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics.
That's significant because prior research has linked excessive TV watching with childhood obesity, says Brian Saelens, the study's lead author and a psychologist at Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center. And obesity in kids can lead to problems like Type 2 diabetes and heart disease.
"In our study we wanted to see what factors in the home might relate to more television watching," he says.
Saelens' research was part of a larger, longitudinal study called SCAN -- the San Diego Study of Child Activity and Nutrition -- that began 12 years ago and is ongoing.
In 1990, SCAN researchers studied 169 families when the children were 6 and then again in 1996 when they were 12.
Although the investigators had examined the relationship between what kids watched and what they ate, they never explored whether mixing TV with dining was predictive of total tube time.
Because of his interest in childhood obesity, Saelens recently took another look at SCAN's data and then documented his findings.
Over the six-year period, the kids increased their weekly viewing time by five hours, so that by age 12 they spent about 26 hours a week glued to the small screen.
This dramatically surpasses the American Academy of Pediatrics' recommended two-hour daily maximum.
Although the number of household TVs and the percentage of kids with sets in their bedrooms also climbed, the most compelling link was between eating meals in front of the box and the total amount of TV watched: "TV dinners" accounted for more than 20 percent of viewing hours.
"Each meal eaten in front of the TV adds 38 to 73 minutes of time to overall television watching," Saelens says. "It's unlikely that it takes children this long to eat meals."
Moreover, the Body Mass Index (BMI) of children who watched more than two hours a day was around the 85th percentile for their age group. Saelens warns that BMI levels -- the ratio of weight to height -- this high increase their chances of becoming obese adults.
Dr. Susan Buttross, a professor of pediatrics at the University of Mississippi Medical Center, says Saelens' study complements the current literature. A recent study, published in this month's issue of Pediatrics, examined the TV routines of children under age 4 and found that the more shows they watched, the more weight they gained.
"Television's linked to obesity and I don't think there should be any argument about it. The more time spent watching TV, the more likely the child is going to be obese," Buttross says.
Drawn-out dining also reduces opportunities for high-energy games, she adds.
"At age 6 when children play, most of them play actively. They play things like hide-and seek, tag and ball games. But when they're eating in front of the TV, they're getting at least five less hours of activity time," Buttross says.
Saelens suspects that blurred boundaries between mealtime and TV time are only partly responsible for extended viewing. "I think it might also be a proxy measure for a parent's permissiveness or the [lack of] rules in the house about TV watching," he says.
Although his study never examined parental viewing habits, Saelens believes they probably match their children's practices.
He advises parents to lay down the law about how much is too much and come up with alternative activities.
"I'd encourage parents to plan things for after the television is turned off," he suggests. "This gives a child something to look forward to and that way it feels less like a punishment for excessive watching and more like a reward for doing other things."
What To Do
For more on the escalating problem of childhood obesity, read this report from the U.S. Surgeon General. And visit the American Academy of Pediatrics to view its guidelines for children and television watching.