Why TV Can Cause Asthma in Children

There’s a long list of reasons to be concerned about kids spending too much time in front of the TV or computer. Besides being linked to attention-deficit issues, sleep disorders and behavior problems, TV also contributes to asthma in children. And, for children who already have the breathing disorder, an overdose of screen time may make it worse. We explain how… How can an innocent glowing rectangle make it harder for your child to breathe? After all, they’re just sitting there. Exactly. Sedentary “screen time” – a catch-all phrase for using any electronic media – can be hazardous to your children’s health. And not just to their brains, studies show. Children who watched more than two hours of TV a day at age 3 were twice as likely to develop symptoms of asthma by age 11 as those who watched less, according to a 2009 study published in the respiratory medicine journal Thorax, which tracked the lung health of more than 3,000 British kids. You may already know that “children who watch more TV have higher rates of obesity,” says Jessica Bartfield, M.D., a medical weight loss specialist at Gottlieb Memorial Hospital in Maywood, Ill. “And there’s an association between obesity and asthma in children.” Excess weight adds to the problem of asthma in children by compressing the lungs, reducing the amount of air they can hold, Bartfield notes. If airways are already narrowed with inflammation from asthma, it’s harder to get air in and hold it. “Obesity also leads to a constant, low level of inflammation within the body, which may predispose someone to developing symptoms of asthma,” Bartfield says. Even children who don’t have asthma are at risk. Some researchers have speculated that not getting enough aerobic exercise could adversely affect their developing lungs, making them more susceptible to the disease. The average 8- to 18-year-old now grows up in a home with four TVs, two computers and two videogame consoles, according to a 2010 report from the Kaiser Family Foundation. The report also found that two-thirds of children this age have their own cell phones, 59% have handheld videogame players and 29% have laptops. So what can parents do? Make a house rule restricting screen time to no more than an hour or two a day, says the American Academy of Pediatrics – especially for children with asthma. Here’s why: Reason #1: TV and games can be crutches for “downtime.” Some parents of children with asthma may misguidedly encourage more screen time for their kids to subdue symptoms of asthma. In a University of Rochester Medical Center study that looked at media use in 224 children with asthma, “63% engaged in some kind of screen-time activity” when they needed to sit down during an asthma flare-up, says Kelly Conn, M.P.H., director of research support at the university and lead researcher. As a result, children who sometimes needed to slow down or stop what they were doing because of asthma averaged 3.5 hours of screen-time daily – an hour more than children whose asthma was well-controlled and didn’t force them to slow down. What you can do: If you usually urge your wheezing child to sit down and watch a DVD, rethink that strategy, advises Conn. For necessary periods of rest, “children can settle down with things they enjoy without always turning to a screen,” Conn says. Instead, your child can draw a picture, build with blocks or Legos or read a book. All are activities that promote creativity and cognitive growth. Then, at times when the child’s asthma isn’t flaring, encourage more physical activity. Unfortunately, exercise can trigger symptoms of asthma in many kids. If it does, talk to your pediatrician about how to work around the triggers. “Your child’s asthma action plan should address ways to prevent exercise-induced asthma,” says Jonathan Steinfeld, M.D., pediatric pulmonologist at St. Christopher’s Hospital for Children in Philadelphia. “Simple things such as warming up slowly, not doing cold-weather sports, and using an inhaler before exercise can be really helpful.” With the right treatment plan, most children should experience few, if any, limitations in their normal activities, says Steinfeld. Also, consider a rescue inhaler before exercise to keep symptoms from flaring afterward. Reason #2: TV-watching means more snacking. Kids who frequently ate snacks such as chips, popcorn, pizza, burgers and hot dogs were nearly five times as likely to have symptoms of asthma as those who never or rarely had such snacks, according to a 2011 Greek study of 700 children, published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association. The link was strongest in kids who watched TV or played videogames for more than two hours a day. One likely explanation: Unconscious snacking while channel surfing can lead to obesity. “Once children have asthma, they may find the disease more difficult to control if they’re obese,” Bartfield says. Some research has also suggested that sodium in salty snacks may worsen airway hyper-reactivity in asthmatic kids. What you can do: Foster healthy eating habits by not keeping junk food in the house. And pass by the fast food drive-thru. Make wholesome snacks handy and appealing; for example, peel a banana, cut it in half, dip it in low-fat yogurt, roll it in crushed whole-grain cereal and freeze for a healthy make-ahead treat. Also, when you’re busy making dinner, don’t use TV to keep kids out of the kitchen. Instead, ask them to help you cook, suggests Nancy Sander, president and founder of Allergy and Asthma Network Mothers of Asthmatics. “Even little ones can help wash berries or roll out biscuits,” Sander says. In the process, you’ll have opportunities for nag-free conversation about which foods fuel the body best and why. Reason #3: Small screens can distract from therapeutic family time. In a study published in Child Development in 2011, Barbara Fiese, Ph.D., and her colleagues at the Family Resiliency Center at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, put video cameras in the homes of children with asthma and recorded family interactions at meals. “We found that how a family communicated and acted during meals was related to the child’s symptoms of asthma,” Fiese says. When family members related to each other in a positive way – for example, talking about their day, cracking jokes, discussing hobbies and interests – children with asthma had less severe symptoms and did a better job of sticking with treatment. But “when there was too much hubbub, such as talking on the phone or having the TV on in the background, those benefits were lost,” Fiese says. What you can do: Gather everyone around the table at least 4-5 times a week, says Fiese. A typical family meal lasts 18-20 minutes. Fiese advises spending no more than a total of 5 minutes getting to the table (turning off the phone and TV, bringing a dish from the kitchen) and managing behavior (“Put your napkin on your lap,” “I didn’t hear you say please”). The rest of the time should be spent on positive, criticism-free conversation. “It’s OK to check in briefly with your child about whether she took her asthma medication, but don’t nag,” Fiese says. Another bonus: When your family is eating around a table, “notice whether your child is wheezing or looks tired,” Fiese says. “Kids with persistent asthma are at risk for developing anxiety-related symptoms,” she says. “If you create a calm, caring atmosphere around meals together, this may reduce feelings of anxiety and worry.”