When Parents Unglue, Kids Glue to the Screen

Public-health officials have expressed deep concern about the number of young Americans who are turning into couch potatoes fastened to electronic screens. Somehow these officials never get around to talking about the changes in family life that fostered such unhealthy behavior. But a study completed at the University of Oslo and the Norwegian School of Sport Sciences make the linkages between family disintegration and electronic-screen addition too clear to ignore.

The researchers began their study of “sedentary behaviors (SB)” among older children and adolescents with a particular concern about reported increases in these groups of “television (TV) viewing and use of computer/electronic games.” That concern grows out of awareness that “high levels of SB have adverse impacts on child and adult health. In young people, SB has been found to be associated with increased body weight and obesity, adverse metabolic profiles, and poor fitness in later life.” That concern also reflects an understanding of how sedentary behavior prevents Physical Activity (PA), activity that delivers “several short and long term benefits for the well-being of children and adolescents.”

To better understand why children and teens overdose on sedentary electronic-screen viewing, the researchers analyze data collected between September 2007 and May 2009 from 885 students in thirty-seven schools. At least for boys, the researchers limn a clear linkage between family structure and growing electronic-screen addiction, measured by tracking Total Screen Time (TST) per week.

“Among males,” the researchers report, “living with married or cohabitating parents . . . [was] inversely related to an increase in TST, indicating an increase in TST of around 3 hours per week for those not living with married or cohabitating parents.” In other words, “not living with married/cohabitating parents was positively associated with an increase in TST, and with tracking high TST among males.” So strong was this family-structure effect that the researchers calculate that boys living with married or cohabiting parents were more than three times more likely than peers in single-parent households to “track high” in their Total Screen Time (Odds Ratio, 3.10). (Readers may regret that the researchers group married and cohabiting parents together. A more revealing study would have tracked these two groups separately.)

Not surprised by this finding, the researchers cite studies establishing that “young people in single-parent/guardian families consistently watch more TV than those from two parent/guardian families.”

The researchers see in their findings “a hint as to which groups should be particularly targeted for intervention.” But any sober reading of the data should lead to the kind of intervention that puts more couples before the wedding altar and fewer in the divorce court.

(Mekdes K. Gebremariam et al., “Stability and Change in Screen-Based Sedentary Behaviours and Associated Factors among Norwegian Children in the Transition between Childhood and Adolescence,” BMC Public Health 12 [February 6, 2012]: 104.)