Only Five Percent of U.S. Kids are Sleeping, Exercising and Away From Screens for Long Enough, and it's Affecting Their Brains

Children look at screens for too long every day, and don't exercise and sleep enough, and it’s affecting their cognitive ability, researchers have said in a new report. 

Researchers at the University of Ottawa, Carleton University, and the Children's Hospital of Eastern Ontario Research Institute studied how many children are following recommended, screen time, exercise, and sleep guidelines. Published on Wednesday in The Lancet Child & Adolescent Health, the study showed that most U.S. children aren’t meeting the recommendations and it could be affecting their cognition.

The researchers used the Canadian 24-Hour Movement Guidelines for Children and Youth to determine if children were getting enough sleep and exercise, and are limiting their screen time. The guidelines recommend nine to eleven hours of sleep for children ages 5 through 13. They also say that children should get 60 minutes of vigorous physical activity every day and should only have up to two hours of recreational screen time.

“We’ve seen that children who meet more of these guidelines have better outcomes in their physical fitness, different cardio-metabolic outcomes like cardiovascular health, blood pressure, and metabolic regulation,” Jeremy Walsh, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of British Columbia and author on the study, told Newsweek.

“What we hadn’t looked at yet was how does cognition or the functions of our brain that help us to learn and navigate every day, how are these impacted by these guidelines.” The team used the Canadian guidelines because there aren’t any comparable guidelines in the United States.

The researchers found that kids in the U.S. average 3.6 hours a day using digital devices, in their study of 4,500 children ages 8 to 11. In fact, nearly two-thirds of kids spend more than 2 hours a day looking at screens. Children who exceeded the recommendations for daily screen time performed worse on tests that analyzed their memory, thinking and language abilities. 

The study didn’t look at what they were doing on the screens, so Walsh hopes that in the future they can look at whether different types of content change the children’s cognitive results. The sample population will continue to be analyzed as they age, so it’s possible to see how their behaviors and cognitive abilities change over time.

“We found that only five percent of the children in the sample actually met all three recommendations and nearly 30 percent of the sample didn’t meet a single recommendation at all,” Walsh said. “For me, that 30 percent is actually more of a telling stat because these children probably stand to benefit the most from adjusting their behaviors.” Adjusting these behaviors starts with their parents.

“I think we really need to look at our own habits because parents are role models,” Walsh said. “The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends having a media plan with their children that lays out the rules of when media is appropriate.”

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