The more that TV has become a regular commodity in the American household, the more we learn of its negative effects on children's health. Television can affect kids in a variety of ways, such as leading to lack of exercise, exposing them to violent and highly sexualized images, and detaching them from reality. New research suggests that TV also has the power to influence a child’s choice of snack. Middle school children who spend two or more hours each day watching TV are more likely to eat junk food and are at a higher risk for cardiovascular disease than those who spend equal amounts of time on the computer or playing video games.

The research will be presented at the American College of Cardiology’s 63rd Annual Scientific Session this weekend in Washington, D.C. This study, part of Project Healthy Schools, included 1,003 sixth-graders from 25 middle schools in Southeast Michigan. Using questionnaires, the researchers were able to collect information from the children such as frequency of screen time, snacking habits, and their food and beverage choices in the past day. The children’s weight and height were also recorded, as well as blood pressure, cholesterol, and heart rate recovery after exercise. The sixth-graders were divided into three groups: low screen time, high TV time, and high computer/video game time.

As hypothesized, the results proved that kids who spent more time in front of a screen, whether it be watching TV, playing video games, or on the computer, snacked more often and chose less healthy snacks than children who used less technology in their free time. What most interested the researchers was their finding that children who watched TV chose less healthy snacks, such as those high in fat, sugar, and salt, than avid computer and video game users. This is likely to be because children who watch TV are more likely to be constantly bombarded with less healthy foods. Also kids who watch TV are more likely to have free hands to eats with, which leads to more mindless eating.

These children were also more likely to have higher BMIs, elevated systolic and diastolic blood pressure, and slower recovery heart rates than children with low screen time or children who used a computer or video games. This is dangerous because these traits are very closely associated with cardiovascular problems. “Parents need to monitor their kids’ activities. Our results offer even more reason to limit the amount of TV time kids have and are right in line with the current recommendations,” explained senior author on the study, Elizabeth Jackson.

The American Academy of Pediatrics suggests children watch no more than one or two hours of screen time per day, but the average American child spends about seven or more hours in front of a screen. “Snacks are important, and choosing a piece of fruit rather than a bag of chips can make a really big difference for one’s health, “ Jackson said.