Worldwide, infectious diseases are still the number one cause of death in young children. But deaths from infectious diseases declined markedly in the United States during the 20th century and have long ago fallen out of the number one position. It is remarkable that in the U.S. in 1900, over 30% of all deaths occurred in children aged less than 5 years. Now that percentage is about 1%. The top causes of death in 1900 were pneumonia, tuberculosis (TB), diarrhea and diphtheria. Immunizations, antibiotics, and better nutrition and sanitation have been major contributors to the huge drop in these infectious diseases.

Today our kids have different battles. Yes, infectious diseases still lurk and can be serious threats. One concern in that regard is that we have been so successful that we are getting complacent about immunizations, beginning to re-open the door to diseases like whooping cough that had been nearly stamped out – but that’s for another article. In our day, one of the biggest battles involves the tsunami of media inputs washing and crashing over our kids, and us. That tsunami suddenly kills a few, shortens the life span of many more, and cripples the quality of life of countless others.

Because of all this, the discussion in my well-child visits is different from when I started practice over 20 years ago. There is more discussion about the media diet of the children I’m seeing. How many hours a day do they spend in front of a screen (television, computer, DVD, video game, smart phone, etc.)? What kind of games, shows and music are they taking in? This is not in the form of an interrogation or guilt-trip, but more to just highlight this area as a key factor in the health of the child. For example, children ages 11-14 average over five hours of screen time daily. It is no surprise that any activity that pipes content into your brain for that much time daily will have a powerful impact physically, emotionally and relationally.

For starters, a child’s (and this still applies to adults as well) media diet impacts their health physically. In the U.S., obesity has more than doubled in children and tripled in adolescents since 1980. As obesity has increased, so has diabetes. Some of this is tied into the increased time spent sitting and watching a screen rather than engaging in various types of physical exertion.

But beyond this purely physical impact, increased television viewing is also associated with a number of other negative outcomes for children. Children watching high levels of television are less likely to experience feelings of contentment, to participate in after-school activities,to engage actively in other intellectually stimulating activities,to have mostly “A” or “B” grades,and to do well on math achievement tests. Excessive television viewing at very young ages (one to three) is linked to a decreased attention span later in life and to sleep problems.

Research has also found that viewing television violence is associated with children’s aggression – no surprise. Young adults who routinely watch violent television programs as children (six- to ten-year-olds) exhibit more aggressive behaviors as young adults than their peers who watch little or no violent television. Another study finds a link between viewing violent television in adolescence, and drug dependence in later years. Still another found a 30% increased risk for adult criminal behavior for every additional hour of screen viewing on weekdays from ages 5 to 15. Those viewing more socially positive content and less violence demonstrated more socially positive characteristics over time.

Like our food diet, our media diet hugely affects our overall health and that of our children, physically, emotionally, relationally and even spiritually. Both the quantity and quality of what we view is impactful. As a physician, as well as the dad of seven kids, I’ve seen that played out over and over. It’s a tough challenge to help keep kids screen time appropriately limited and positive. And setting the right example personally is key as well. But it’s worth the effort. Just like you want your kids to have the healthiest food and to avoid toxins, help them take the best nutrients into the vital realm of their minds.

Andrew Smith, MD is board-certified in Family Medicine and practices at Trinity Medical’s Maryville office located at 1503 East Lamar Alexander Parkway. Contact him at 982-0835