A program aimed at reducing the number of hours young children spent in front of a screen didn't accomplish that goal, but it did cut back on the meals they ate in front of a television, a new study found.
That's good news according to the lead author, because people tend to eat more and eat unhealthy food while watching television.
"The relationship between screen time and obesity is linked to eating in front of a screen," said Dr. Catherine S. Birken, a pediatrician at The Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto.
In addition to its association with obesity, the study's researchers say screen time - whether it is in front of a television, computer or video game console - has been linked to children having problems with language development and behavior, and their likelihood of cigarette smoking.
"These are really important health outcomes in young children," said Birken. "So we need to understand what works and what doesn't."
So far, studies scrutinizing various methods of cutting back on kids' screen time have found little success.
However, Birken told Reuters Health that a couple of past studies did find promising results in preschool children, which is why her team decided to test a practical approach in that age group.
For their study, published in the journal Pediatrics on Monday, Birken and her colleagues recruited three-year-old children from a network of clinics around the Toronto area during their annual checkups. The children and their parents were randomly assigned into one of two groups.
In an intervention group of 64 children, the parents were told about the health impact of screen time on kids and how to reduce their children's hours.
Some of the techniques included removing televisions from the kids' bedrooms and not allowing them to eat with the television on.
Those families, along with a control group of 68 similar children and their parents, were also educated about safe media use, such as rating systems, Internet safety and violent programming.
The researchers then looked to see if the children's viewing or eating habits changed when they returned for a checkup a year later.
'Taking it seriously'
Overall, the amount of time the children spent in front of a screen did not significantly differ between the two groups.
At the end of the study, the children in both groups spent between 60 and 65 minutes in front of a screen on weekdays. On the weekends, they spent between 80 and 90 minutes in front of a screen.
There also wasn't a difference in the children's BMI scores - a measure of weight in relation to height - between the start and end of the study. However, Birken said (for statistical reasons) she would only expect to see that in a larger group of children.
But, there was a statistically significant difference in the number of meals the children in the intervention group ate in front of the television.
At the start of the study, each group of kids ate about two meals with the television on daily. A year later, that number remained the same for the control group, but fell to about 1.6 for the intervention group.
That, the researchers note, works out to be at least two fewer meals per week in front of the television.
"I don't think there is much harm in turning the TV off during meals. I think that is a good message either way," said Birken.
But, she added that her team would have liked to see the kids spending less time in front of a television. She said it could be that the program needs to be spread out across society, including the children's doctors and teachers.
Dayna M. Maniccia, an assistant professor at the University of Albany who has researched screen time interventions, said even if the study didn't show a reduction in screen time, it makes people think about it.
"The new study is great because it means that people are looking at this and pediatricians are taking it seriously," said Maniccia.