Medical experts are calling on parents to limit the amount of time young children spend playing video games to stop them getting fat.
A study of Swiss schoolchildren aged between six and ten found that some were glued to a TV screen for up to four hours a day.
“To our knowledge this study provides the strongest evidence for an independent association between time spent playing electronic games and childhood obesity,” said Dr Nicolas Stettler, who headed the study.
“Our findings suggest that the use of electronic games should be limited to prevent childhood obesity.”
In the first study of its type in Switzerland, researchers from Zurich University Hospital and the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia in the United States examined the behaviour of 872 children from ten schools in the northeast of the country.
They assessed the amount of television watched, time spent playing video games, whether they watched television during meals or snacked while watching television.
On average children were sat in front of a television for two hours a day, rising to four hours a day in the worst cases.
Researchers found that Swiss children who do not play video games had only a six per cent chance of being overweight; those who played for three hours a day were four times more likely to be overweight.
“If a child has to go to school for eight hours, has to sleep for eight hours and is sat in front of a TV for four hours, then it doesn’t leave much time for other activities,” Dr Paolo Suter, co-author of the study, told swissinfo.
A study, carried out earlier this year by the human nutrition department of Zurich’s Federal Institute of Technology, revealed that the number of Swiss children classed as clinically obese had increased sixfold over the past 20 years.
It found that 20 per cent of children aged 6-12 were overweight and four per cent were obese.
But Suter, a specialist in internal medicine and nutrition at Zurich University Hospital, warned that simply banning children from watching television or playing video games was not the answer.
“If you forbid something, that creates new problems and you have to offer another activity,” he said.
“Children have to learn that other activities are as much fun as sitting in front of a TV,” he added.
“I don’t necessarily mean exercise or sports activity – it’s enough just to move around. This has to be learned early and introduced in schools.”
He said he was especially concerned about attempts to reduce the mandatory three hours’ exercise that Swiss schoolchildren are supposed to take a week.
Lack of exercise
Suter admitted that changing the lifestyles of both adults and children was not going to happen overnight.
And he dismissed the “quick-fix strategies” which are currently being promoted, insisting that greater efforts were needed to motivate people to be physically active.
“In those countries where we have the data, the prevalence of obesity is increasing. Obesity is probably the most important disease modifier for all chronic diseases which we will have when we are older: diabetes, coronary heart disease, blood pressure and so on,” he said.
“It’s a big problem, and I don’t know whether it is already out of control.”
swissinfo, Adam Beaumont
The study assessed 872 children from ten schools.
On average they spent two hours a day sat in front of a television.
This rose to four hours in the worst cases.
A US-Swiss study has established a link between time spent in front of a TV screen and child obesity in Switzerland.
The study showed that children of foreign nationals living in Switzerland were almost twice as likely to be obese as Swiss children.
It said non-Swiss children watched more television and had less physical activity.