More screen time boosts risk that preteens will develop eating disorder, study says

Katie Camero
·3 min read

A study of more than 11,000 children in the U.S. found that those who spent more time on phone, tablet or television screens were more likely to develop binge-eating disorders a year later.

Although the study on the 9- to 11-year-olds was conducted before the coronavirus pandemic hit, the University of Toronto researchers said their findings are more relevant now that kids are even more laser-focused on screens for virtual school and during time that would have otherwise been spent playing with friends or participating in sports.

Excessive time spent browsing social media, where negative messages about body image often prevail, was also tied to higher likelihoods of developing binge-eating disorders among kids, according to the study published Monday in the International Journal of Eating Disorders.

“Children may be more prone to overeating while distracted in front of screens. They may also be exposed to more food advertisements on television,” study lead author Dr. Jason Nagata, an assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of California, San Francisco, said in a news release. “Although screen time can have important benefits such as education and socialization during the pandemic, parents should try to mitigate risks from excessive screen time such as binge eating.”

Binge eating disorder occurs when a person eats large amounts of food to the point of discomfort, and finishes meals or snacks with a sense of guilt and disgust, according to the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA). It’s diagnosable when it occurs at least once a week for three months, and is not associated with vomiting as a countermeasure.

If left untreated, the disorder can lead to constipation, acid reflux, stomach ruptures, difficulties concentrating and fluctuations in weight, NEDA says. Over time, people with binge eating disorder can develop Type 2 diabetes because their bodies become resistant to insulin, among other long-term health consequences.

The researchers studied 2016-2019 data from 11,025 children between ages 9 and 11 who were participants in the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development Study — the largest long-term study of brain development in the U.S., according to the release.

Kids answered questions about how many hours they spent per day on screens watching television, YouTube videos or movies, as well as playing video games, texting on phones, video chatting or browsing social media. Their parents reported information about their child’s binge-eating behaviors.

On average, children reported about four hours of screen time per day, the study said. The screen time types that were most strongly associated with developing the disorder were social networking, texting and television/movie viewing.

“Of note, we did not find significant associations between video chat or video games (except in females) and binge-eating disorder,” the researchers said in the study. “These forms of screen time may be more interactive and, thus, children may be less prone to binge eating during these more interactive pursuits.”

Each additional hour spent on social media or watching television was associated with a 62% and 39% higher risk of developing the disorder a year later, respectively.

The researchers speculate that kids may be more likely to overeat while distracted by screens, even though they aren’t hungry, which may lead to over-consumption and loss of control over time. Preteens are also subject to media and advertising content that portray “unattainable body” images that “may exacerbate binge eating.”

Past studies have also connected excessive screen time with depression, anxiety, inattention, poor sleep and physical inactivity among children, the study said.

“Exposure to social media and unattainable body ideals may lead to a negative body image and subsequent binge eating,” study senior author Dr. Kyle Ganson, an assistant professor at the University of Toronto’s Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work, said in the release. “This study emphasizes the need for more research on how screen time impacts the well-being of young people now and in the future.”