Los Angeles County has launched an ambitious initiative to reduce screen time and increase exercise among children five and under.
The county’s Department of Public Health is placing ads in public transit stations, in movie theaters and online showing tots and parents engaging in fun activities such as jumping and playing indoor basketball. The ads, as well as some radio spots, are part of a recent campaign from the public health department called “Less TV Time, More Play Time.”
Launched in August, the campaign’s aim is to move kids away from TV, phone, tablet and computer screens and get them up and exercising. But because not every kid in Los Angeles has access to safe spaces outdoors to play and run and jump, the campaign offers strategies for exercise indoors as well.’
“The road to a healthy life and proper body weight involves much less time spent in front of a screen,” says LA County Interim Health Officer, Jeffrey Gunzenhauser, MD, MPH. “We continue to have a serious childhood obesity problem in LA County, but we can reverse the trend if we start good habits early.”
The campaign was prompted by recent national studies that found that young kids spend an average of seven hours a day in front of screens and that obesity levels are inching up among preschoolers in LA.
In fact, the concern about media overuse among kids from infants to teens is so serious that in mid-October the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) released several policy statements on the issue, including one specifically about infants, toddlers and preschoolers. “The AAP recommends parents prioritize creative, unplugged playtime for infants and toddlers,” according ot the policy statement. Among the other new recommendations from the AAP:
- For children younger than 18 months, avoid use of screen media other than video-chatting.
- Parents of children 18 to 24 months of age who want to introduce digital media should choose high-quality programming, and watch it with their children to help them understand what they’re seeing.
- For children ages 2 to 5 years, limit screen use to 1 hour per day of high-quality programs that parents watch with their children.
- For children ages 6 and older, place consistent limits on the time spent using media, and the types of media, and make sure media does not take the place of adequate sleep, physical activity and other behaviors essential to health.
- Designate media-free times together, such as dinner or driving, as well as media-free locations at home, such as bedrooms.
- The AAP also recommends charging media such as smartphones, tablets and computers in a room other than a child’s bedroom.
The Academy has also created an online tool to help parents set guidelines and child/parent agreements for media use such as what hours of the day media may be used at home and where devices will be charged.
The new “Less TV Time, More Play Time” in Los Angeles is funded through a grant from First 5 LA — which gets its money from a statewide tobacco tax — and builds on the group’s earlier grants to the LA County public health department for a program called the Early Childhood Obesity Prevention Initiative.
Under this grant, the Choose Health LA program – a community-based public education campaign – is working with LA county departments and public agencies, community and faith-based organizations, and health care providers to provide nutrition and physical activity resources to families with children ages 0-5.
Initiatives include parent trainings, tips for healthy eating out in restaurants and reducing sugary drinks, as well as the new physical activity campaign.
“Helping the children in LA County choose health by encouraging physical activity and reduced screen time is an important step in building healthier families, neighborhoods and communities,” says Armando Jimenez, Director of Research and Evaluation for First 5 LA. “This campaign advances our effort to reduce the rates of childhood obesity and create communities where all children and families thrive.”
Linda Aragon, acting director of the public health department’s division of maternal, child and adolescent health, says the outreach efforts on nutrition and exercise are concentrated in communities with childhood obesity rates above the county average.
But one challenge is convincing parents that more than a bit of screen time each day is actually bad for the kids. Parents in low income families, especially those who don’t have strong English skills, often say they have good reasons for encouraging screen time for their young children, says Rachel Tyree, MPH, Communications Director for the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health Division of Chronic Disease and Injury Prevention.
Tyree says research by the health department finds that parents are often enthusiastic about screen time because they think it can help their kids with English, provide educational lessons, they rely on it as a babysitter when parents get home from work without having to pay someone to mind the kids. For parents who live in unsafe neighborhoods, screens of all kinds provide entertainment when kids can’t play outside.
The new LA County health department campaign includes infographics with research data points from the AAP about specific negative consequences of too much screen time:
- The more time kids spend watching TV when they’re very young, the harder it is to break away when they’re older.
- Two hours of TV per day has been shown to increase obesity in kids 3-5
- Irregular sleep patterns and sleep delays have been linked to screen time for kids under 3.
Recommendations from the campaign for swapping out screen time for other activities include physical activity to get kids moving including indoor basketball for little ones, building a fort and dance parties.
Jessica Jimenez, a single mom from Whittier, California, who has four children ages 17, 13, 5 and 3 is a parent volunteer on the grant initiatives, has been turning off her kids’ screens more frequently over the past few months.
“At first it was hard,” Jimenez admits, and required her to keep coming up with alternatives they thought were fun. “Recently I’ve signed them up for sports activities in our neighborhood and they’re enjoying them,” Jimenez says. Choose Health LA also has a county park locator that can link families to fun, free activities outdoors.
“Research in the county shows that younger kids are developing adult health issues such as prediabetes and heart disease which is why we put together these campaigns,” says Linda Aragon, but the focus is also aimed at concern over studies that have found that sedentary activities have been shown to hurt self-esteem and school achievement.
Aragon says that like the county’s Choose Health LA Restaurants Program, which stresses choosing healthier meal options for both adults and kids rather than “nixing the pizza altogether,” the new physical activity campaign is about taking steps to be more physically active.
“We live in Southern California and we have parks, beaches and hiking trails,” says Aragon. “This is part of an overall effort to educate parents about the things they can do to make healthy choices for their children. What we’re trying to do is get them from forming the habit of just sitting in front of a screen all the time.”
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