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TV and video games have robbed children of outside play for years. Most U.S. homes now have a personal computer, too. About a third of kids ages 8 to 18 have a computer in their room. That has health experts casting a wary eye on PCs, as well.
This extra media time can be a problem for youngsters. Kids who go online may meet predators, or they may waste hours in chat rooms. Beyond that, this growing amount of "screen time" can cost kids the exercise they need to keep fit.
The amount of exercise that kids get is decreasing, according to Carl Foster, Ph.D., past president of the American College of Sports Medicine. As a result, he says, kids today are getting fatter and may be the first generation to have a shorter life expectancy than their parents.
In a recent study of preteen and teenage girls, sedentary girls gained an extra 10 to 15 pounds from age 9 to 19, according to the American Cancer Society. The sedentary girls' weight gain wasn't because they were eating more calories. It was because they were getting a lot less exercise: Their activity level dropped by about 7.5 brisk, 30-minute walks per week.
Children and teens should get at least 60 minutes a day of physical activity, according to the 2005 Dietary Guidelines from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. How can you help? A lot of doctors say you should take TVs and PCs out of kids' rooms. Limit screen time to two hours a day. Encourage your kids to exercise. Go for a walk with your kids a few nights a week after supper. Shut off the Saturday cartoons to go inline skating or visit the zoo.
"While your children may complain in the short term, they will be healthier and better developed people for having a little less electronic input," says Dr. Foster, a professor of sports science at the University of Wisconsin-LaCrosse.
"The key is to create something else for them to do outside without being overbearing about it or orchestrating the play," he says. "You may need to band together with other parents and organize an after-school program to provide a safe venue. But kids, being kids, are plenty smart enough to think up fun things to do."