A forthcoming study from the Centers For Disease Control, due to be published in the June issue of the journal Pediatrics and widely publicized over the past few days, found that the rates of pre-diabetes in US children 12-17 has skyrocketed, from 9% in 2000 to 23% in 2008. This is an incredible statistic, which made me double check to make sure it wasn’t a misprint, and I’m not generally surprised by such things. That’s nearly 1/4 of US children at high risk for heart attacks, stroke, kidney disease, and other complications linked to diminished quality of life, premature death, and hundreds of billions of dollars in health care costs.
Pre-diabetes foreshadows Type II diabetes, the “lifestyle kind,” directly related to diet, activity, and BMI. It used to be confined to adult medicine, but is increasingly a concern for pediatricians. Like obesity (its major risk factor) it can be very difficult to control, especially for grownups, as the deluge of best-selling diet books and talk shows can attest. Prevention is key, starting as early as possible. Though alarming and epidemic by any measure, child obesity has remained steady since 1999, at 17% of US children (with another 17% overweight), suggesting that diabetes is playing catch-up.
So how is this related to Baby Unplugged, which is mostly concerned with children under 3? Very. US children are becoming overweight at younger and younger ages, with the rate of overweight in 6-11 years olds more than quadrupling since the 1970s (4% to over 16%). Not long ago – only a few hardware upgrade cycles, really – obesity was a rare thing, especially in kids. And overweight/obese preschoolers are at risk to become overweight/obese tweens, who at risk to become overweight/obese teens, and so on. Here’s a great chart showing how obesity happens (source here):
Which leads us back to prevention and our mission here. How children engage with the world in the first few years sets a tone for their entire life. Young children encouraged to be active mentally and physically in the real world are much more likely to remain that way, building a strong foundation of attention, motivation, and self-confidence. And here lies the core of the problem. Using your grownup experience for comparison (or your parents’), consider this: what has changed during the span where kids started getting fat and sugary? Everything. What they eat. How they eat. Where they eat…
But most strikingly of all, especially in the context of this blog – what they do. And where. And how. The pre-technology – or low-technology/analog – era was a time of near-constant activity. Building. Exploring. Running. Finding things to do – or when they couldn’t be found, making them up. Snacking was something you did during brief time-outs before screaming back out to work on the fort. Much is made nowadays of soccer practice, dance class, and other structured activities, which are wonderful, but these are mostly discrete, 1-hour blocks of relatively intense activity, involving lots of driving and a snack and/or video immediately afterward. The calories burned simply don’t compare to an entire day – much less childhood of days – running around on safari.
It’s happened so fast and entirely we hardly notice. Children’s lives have been sucked into a surreal black hole of technology, paradoxically making them busier than ever in virtual/academic worlds, and more sedentary in the real one where sweating is involved. Thus, the child obesity and pre-diabetes epidemics are driven by a perfect storm of diet, passivity, and over-structuring, with screen time gluing them together like electronic mucilage.
Though much is rightly made of diet and exercise, reducing or modifying screen time is the simplest and most effective means to reduce risk of obesity and pre-diabetes in children. By far the easiest time to intervene is in the first three years, before children even know what they’re missing. For example, removing video screens from bedrooms (recall, 70% of all US kids and 30% of those under 2 have them) dramatically reduces viewing hours as well as inspiring increased activity outside of the confines of glassy-eyed video shrines. Removing bedroom screens also improves sleep, which is critical for weight management. Thus, we foster a a virtuous cycle: less viewing, more activity, better sleep, better health.
Total viewing time is another critical modifiable risk factor, complicated by the explosion of handheld devices (see above), a perilous hybrid of bedroom and regular media facilitating viewing anywhere, anytime, in amounts larger than we ever imagined. Despite its coolness and allure, iPads and other handheld media are essentially TV equivalents, breeding distraction and dependence, invading bedrooms, impairing sleep, crowding out vigorous activity, and sapping motivation to do non-device things. Like e-media 1.0, it should be banned for kids under 3, who are most prone to developing bad habits of body and mind and have nothing to gain from them.
Finally, eating while viewing deserves mention. For children, especially those at risk for obesity, it should be treated like drinking and driving – just say no. Perhaps via a plot by the Goldfish/Oreo lobby, viewing short-circuits feelings of fullness, resulting in constant munching while Sesame Streeters stay fit dancing and Dora and Diego romp. Thus, kids who eat and snack eat more and do less, often barraged by commercials for high-glycemic and salty foods. This is how we eat such vast portions of candy and popcorn at the movies, by the way.
Which leads us to a happy closing message, a Baby Unplugged sunrise:
do other things!
Life is too short to worry about something that is largely self-inflicted, a byproduct of a high-tech era run riot. Turn back the clock on your child’s risk for diabetes, obesity, and other miseries by letting them live the way you or your parents did. It really is as simple as that. They are young, healthy, and brimming with potential energy. Let them transform it into the kinetic kind by exploring the real world, building box forts, throwing balls, exploring the yard, then sharing a book and getting a good night’s sleep. Then let them awaken to a life of good health, where the statistics above are just a bad dream.
Thanks for reading. Now go play! As always, thoughts and ideas are welcome…