New risk from too much screentime | Science News for Students

New risk from too much screentime

Teens — and everyone else, it seems — spend an unhealthy amount of time sitting, a new survey finds
Jun 5, 2019 — 6:45 am EST
a bored teen with an afro watching tv while sitting on a sofa

A national survey shows Americans spend a lot of time sitting in front of screens.  

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You might want to take this news standing up. A national survey finds that Americans of all ages are spending more time sitting. And this has health experts worried.

Sitting too much — especially when watching television, phones or other screens — can be bad for your health, research suggests. It has been linked to diseases such as diabetes and cancer. It also has been tied to an increased risk of mental health issues, such as anxiety and depression.

In a new study, researchers analyzed survey data from more than 50,000 American children, teenagers and adults. The surveys, which went from 2001 through 2016, asked people how much time they spent sitting. The results of those surveys were published April 23 in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Overall, people reported sitting a lot. For instance, close to two-thirds of children and teens said they sat at least two hours a day watching television or videos. The data also showed that computer use outside of school or work has been increasing across all ages.

For adults and teens, the estimated total time sitting increased by nearly one hour a day between 2007 and 2016. That means teens now sit more than eight hours a day.

two kids using screens at home
Children, teens and adults all spend a lot of time sitting, according to a new study. Teens report sitting more than eight hours a day.
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Lin Yang is a public-health expert at Alberta Health Services in Calgary, Canada. An author of the new study, she notes that this trend is not unique to the United States. “Studies out of Europe and Australia have also found increases in sitting time,” she says. “This includes sitting for work or school as well as driving rather than walking or riding a bike.”

In recent years, inactivity has emerged as an important risk to overall health. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services updated its Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans last year. It now highlights new research about the dangers of excessive sitting. “This new version recommends Americans not only move more, but also sit less,” Yang says.

Erin O’Loughlin is an exercise psychologist at Concordia University in Montreal, Canada. There are many reasons children and teens have been sitting more, she notes. These include less outdoor play, more screen time and schools that have been reducing opportunities for exercise during the school day.

O’Loughlin studies how active video games — sometimes called “exergames” — can help kids move more. “Sports are great. But you don’t have to play sports if that’s not your thing,” she says. To up your active time and sit less, she recommends finding what works for you. “If you like screen time, try to mix it with physical activity,” she says. “You can do this by playing active video games.”

People tend to think they spend less time sitting and more time exercising. The first step to getting healthier is becoming aware of how active — or inactive — you are, says O’Loughlin. Activity trackers can help. Their apps give people the data to track trends. So can thinking about which daily activities get you to move most.

“We all need to move more and sit less,” says Yang. “It’s important to not just switch from sitting to standing but to actually move around.” And spending more time outside helps, she notes. This is good for fitness and for exposure to the sun, an important source of the body’s vitamin D.

If getting more exercise sounds difficult, don’t stress: Take it one step at a time.

Power Words

(more about Power Words)

anxiety     A nervous reaction to events causing excessive uneasiness and apprehension. People with anxiety may even develop panic attacks.

app     Short for application, or a computer program designed for a specific task.

cancer     Any of more than 100 different diseases, each characterized by the rapid, uncontrolled growth of abnormal cells. The development and growth of cancers, also known as malignancies, can lead to tumors, pain and death.

depression     (in medicine) A mental illness characterized by persistent sadness and apathy. Although these feelings can be triggered by events, such as the death of a loved one or the move to a new city, that isn’t typically considered an “illness” — unless the symptoms are prolonged and harm an individual’s ability to perform normal daily tasks (such as working, sleeping or interacting with others).

diabetes     A disease where the body either makes too little of the hormone insulin (known as type 1 disease) or ignores the presence of too much insulin when it is present (known as type 2 diabetes).

psychologist     A scientist or mental-health professional who studies the human mind, especially in relation to actions and behaviors. 

risk     The chance or mathematical likelihood that some bad thing might happen. For instance, exposure to radiation poses a risk of cancer. Or the hazard — or peril — itself. (For instance: Among cancer risks that the people faced were radiation and drinking water tainted with arsenic.)

stress     (in psychology) A mental, physical, emotional or behavioral reaction to an event or circumstance (stressor) that disturbs a person or animal’s usual state of being or places increased demands on a person or animal; psychological stress can be either positive or negative.

survey     To view, examine, measure or evaluate something, often land or broad aspects of a landscape. (with people) To ask questions that glean data on the opinions, practices (such as dining or sleeping habits), knowledge or skills of a broad range of people. Researchers select the number and types of people questioned in hopes that the answers these individuals give will be representative of others who are their age, belong to the same ethnic group or live in the same region. (n.) The list of questions that will be offered to glean those data.

unique     Something that is unlike anything else; the only one of its kind.


Journal: L. Yang et al. Trends in sedentary behavior among the US population, 2001-2016. Journal of the American Medical Association. Vol. 321, April 23, 2019, p. 1587. doi: 10.1001/jama.2019.3636.