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On March 19, the Alliance — made up of Billings Clinic, RiverStone Health and St. Vincent Healthcare — released the results of the 2010 Community Health Assessment. One of the more alarming statistics identified in this assessment is that 72.9 percent of Yellowstone County residents are overweight or obese (defined as a BMI of 25.0 or higher). This number may seem staggering on its own, but even more alarmingly, it is a 10 percent increase from five years ago.

Unfortunately, it is not just adults carrying extra weight. The Montana Nutrition and Physical Activity Program reports obesity rates have tripled for preschool children ages 2 to 5 and quadrupled for kids ages 6 to 11 over the past 30 years.

Why is this happening? One culprit researchers have identified is “screen time” — time spent with TV, videos, DVDs, video games, cell phones and computers. Have you ever thought about how much time your family spends in front of a computer or TV during one week? In a recent study of 6- to 13-year-olds, kids reported using screen media for nearly 5.5 hours a day. That much daily inactivity will cause weight gain, even in a growing child.

What is a parent to do? One response to the rise in screen time is the creation of “Screen-Free Week” from April 18 to April 24. Everyone is encouraged to turn off the television and computer —aside from work or school — and find other ways to spend time. This is an opportunity to evaluate the role media devices play in everyday life.

Put your screen time use (or abuse) in check with these screen-time tips:

No screen time for children under age 2. This includes baby videos that claim to increase learning and brain development. Science has yet to prove any benefit from such videos. It has, however, proven the positive benefits of live play and interaction on a child’s mental and physical development.

Do not allow your children to have a TV or computer in their bedroom. This will help them get their needed amount of sleep and stay alert during school. It will also help you monitor and regulate the programs they watch, the websites they browse and the video games they play.

Set limits on the amount of TV your child watches. Take an accounting of the full range of media in your life and in your child’s life. Limit non-work and non-school-related screen time. Be firm, the recommended limit is one to two hours a day.

Watch TV or play video games with your kids. Talk to them about inappropriate content and advertising claims. This can provide a great learning opportunity.

Be a good role model. Keep yourself in check on your own viewing habits, and limit your own screen use. Your kids will learn more by watching you than by you telling them. Be mindful when you watch, and turn the TV off when no one is watching it.

Separate viewing from chewing. Don’t eat in front of the TV or other screen media. Make meal time family time. Use this time to learn about what is going on in your children’s lives to monitor and influence their development in a positive way.

Agree as a family about screen time. Discuss and agree on limits so every family member can say, “This is what we do in our house.”

Promote more green time and less screen time. You live in Montana for a reason — get outside and play.

Hillary Harris is the director of Population Health Services at RiverStone Health. She can be reached at 406.651.6462 or hillary.har@riverstonehealth.org.

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