New study shows teens aren't meeting recommendations for activity, sleep, or screen time

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Researchers found the results break down differently between the genders

In today’s society, it should come as no surprise that teens are always on the move. With those busy schedules, something has to fall by the wayside, whether that’s staying up late after basketball practice to finish a homework assignment or skipping the gym to spend time with friends.

However, a new study found that sleep and physical activity are on the decline for many teens, while time spent in front of screens is going up, all of which could affect teens’ health in the long run.

“There is plenty of evidence to show how teenagers aren’t getting enough physical activity, or sufficient sleep, or keeping their screen time in check,” said researcher Gregory Knell, PhD. “But this is the first time these three factors, which have a crucial bearing on a child’s health, have been analyzed together among a nationally representative sample of U.S. adolescents. The results are a wake-up call for everyone who wants to make sure our children have a healthy future.”

Trends among teens

The researchers cite the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which recommends teens spend no more than two hours in front of screens while getting at least one hour of exercise per day. They also refer to the National Sleep Foundation for nightly recommendations, which encourages teens get eight to 10 hours of sleep each night.

Using data from the Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance Survey from 2011 through 2017, the researchers evaluated responses from nearly 60,000 high school students across the country to see how many of these boxes they check in their day-to-day lives.

The researchers were most surprised to find that just one in 20 teens were meeting all three of the recommendations. Broken down between teen boys and teen girls, the researchers found that seven percent of teen boys meet all three recommendations, while just three percent of girls do the same.

“By far the most startling finding was how few adolescents across the board are meeting all three recommendations,” said Knell. “I expected the percentage of adolescents meeting all three requirements currently to be low, but not this low.”

The researchers were most concerned with how these findings can affect teens’ health -- both physically and mentally -- and they think further research should be done to see how these factors affect teens long-term.

“These findings are only scratching the surface and demonstrate a need to learn more about the role parenting style and home environment may play in increasing or curtailing these behaviors,” said Knell. “Although the study confirms and further reveals how few children are leading optimal lifestyles, it also raises many questions about what can be done to reverse that trend and improve their health.”

Consistent findings

The American Heart Association (AHA) recently released guidelines encouraging parents to limit their children’s screen time to one to two hours per day, as doing so can help improve children’s cognitive and development skills.

Additionally, researchers have found that watching TV, playing video games, or spending any time in front of screens before bed can lead to less sleep for young children and teens.

“We saw technology before bed being associated with less sleep and higher BMIs,” said Caitlyn Fuller. “We also saw this technology use being associated with more fatigue in the morning, which circling back, is another risk factor for higher BMIs.”

Not getting enough sleep can also affect teens’ decision-making, as a recent study found that teens who sleep less than six hours each night are more likely to engage in risky behaviors, such as drinking and driving or substance abuse.

“Insufficient sleep in youth raises multiple public health concerns, including mental health, substance abuse, and motor vehicle crashes,” said researcher Elizabeth Klerman, PhD. “We should support efforts to promote healthy sleep habits and decrease barriers to sufficient sleep in this vulnerable population.”

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