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Kids With TV Curbs Do More Homework

They hit the books when there's no set in their bedroom, study shows

TUESDAY, Oct. 2, 2001 (HealthDayNews) -- Kids who don't have a TV in their bedroom spend a little more more time doing homework, a new study says.

Previous studies have shown that the amount of television kids watch is linked to the epidemic of childhood obesity in the United States. Research also has shown that if kids have constant and unrestricted access to a television, they watch more and do less.

This study is a mirror image of those findings. It says that kids whose parents restricted their access to television spent an additional 13 minutes a day on their homework and reading. And if they also didn't have a TV in their bedroom, they worked 20 minutes more, it adds.

"We have been doing research for a number of years on the link between television viewing and childhood obesity," says Jean Wiecha, the deputy director of the Harvard Prevention Research Center at the Harvard School of Public Health in Boston. "With an understanding of that relationship, we wanted to look at the household environment -- whether kids had access to television and where they had that access to TV. We wanted to answer the question, 'Does that access cause them to watch more television?'"

According to studies published by the American Medical Association, children tend to be skinnier and more active if they watch no more than an hour of television a day. The risk for being overweight is highest among kids plunked down in front of the set for at least four hours a day.

"We wanted to go further, and so we did two sets of analyses looking at where the television was -- in the living room or in the kids' bedroom -- and if that influenced TV viewing habits," Wiecha explains. "And then we also looked at the time spent on reading and homework. Was that influenced similarly by access to television? We not only looked at where the TV was, but whether parents restricted the kid's access to television."

Using data collected through a Boston school nutritional program called Planet Health, Wiecha and her colleagues questioned 1,197 sixth and seventh graders from 10 Boston-area middle schools.

They found that 54 percent of the kids did indeed have a television set in their room, and 42 percent of the kids said their parents set no restrictions on how much they could watch. "The kids who have a TV in their room watch about 3.8 hours of television a day," she says, "and kids who don't watch about 40 minutes less that that."

The study also shows that kids who ate dinner with their parents watched about 30 minutes less than kids who did not. "And when they reported their parents did not put limits on how much television they watched, they watched about one-half hour more than kids whose parents did set limits."

The findings were published in the September/October issue of Ambulatory Pediatrics.

The researchers say there was "a significant association" between the amount of time spent on homework and access to a TV set.

"If parents limited TV and did not allow a set in their room, those kids spent more time doing reading and homework," she says. "However, that still needs some study. We still need to study that cause-and-effect relationship."

And will less television mean fewer overweight kids?

"The answer to that, simply, is yes," Wiecha says.

"Other studies have shown that if you reduce TV usage by about one-half hour a day, you do see a reduction in obesity," she adds. "From a public health standpoint, it does make sense, therefore, to recommend that parents limit their children's television viewing if they want to reduce the risk of obesity in children. And that's consistent with the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommendation calling for a media-free bedroom and that kids watch less than two hours of television every day."

"Take the TV out of the bedroom, that's step No. 1. And take the computer out of the bedroom, that's step No. 2," says Dr. Miriam Bar-on, chair of the AAP's committee that set the recommendation. "There should be an electronic media-free zone in children's bedrooms so that children have the opportunity to reflect on their daily lives and so that parents have better control over what their children are exposed to."

While there's nothing surprising in Wiecha's findings, Bar-on says, "it's nice to have concrete data when discussing these issues and they have substantiated, with hard numbers, what we have hypothesized."

What To Do

Parents need to take a more active role in their children's media habits not only for health effects but also for psychological effects. "There are plenty of studies that have linked television and video games to violence and violent behavior, substance use and abuse, altered body image. Parents need to dictate and control what their children watch."

For more on your children's TV habits, see the Federal Communications Commission or the American Academy of Pediatrics.

SOURCES: Interviews with Jean Wiecha, Ph.D., deputy director, Harvard Prevention Research Center, Harvard School of Public Health, Boston; Miriam Bar-on, M.D., professor of pediatrics, Stritch School of Medicine, Loyola University, Chicago; September/October 2001 Ambulatory Pediatrics
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