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Not enough sleep and too much screen time linked to childhood obesity

Lack of sleep increases the risk of obesity in children and too much television could be partly to blame, UOW researchers have found.

The study, which examined the sleep habits of Australian children aged 4-8, revealed children who sleep less than their peers could be at risk of obesity.

“We found that shorter sleep durations predicted higher BMIs (body mass index), which is a common measure of obesity,” lead researcher Dr Christopher Magee said.

Dr Magee, Deputy Director and Senior Research Fellow at UOW's Centre for Health Initiatives, said the results, which were recently published in the journal Acta Paediatrica, also suggested that increased screen-time (television viewing and computer use) could partly explain this relationship. 

“Children who sleep less could engage in more screen time because they are tired and less motivated to be active. Over time, this could increase their risk of obesity,” he said.

Previous studies have shown that short sleep is a potential risk factor for obesity in children, however this is the first study to suggest that increased screen-time could underlie this relationship. 

Dr Magee said current Australian guidelines recommend that children do not engage in more than two hours of screen-time per day. 

“The amount of sleep children need varies by age. However, ensuring regular bedtimes, encouraging regular physical activity, and limiting night-time television viewing and use of electronic media, could be simple strategies to promote healthy sleep patterns in children,”

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, a quarter of all Australian children (around 600,000 children aged 5-17) are overweight or obese.

 “The causes of the higher rates of child obesity are complex and many. However, reduced physical activity, increased screen-time, and unhealthy diets are likely to be major causes,” Dr Magee said.

“Our findings, combined with other research, suggest that shorter sleep could also be a contributing factor. This is an important consideration, because there is evidence that children today sleep about one hour less per night compared with children a century ago,” Dr Magee said.

Australia needs a community level approach to encourage healthy and balanced lifestyles in children, which encompass multiple health behaviours, such as physical activity, diet, screen-time, and sleep, he added. 

Media contact: For more information, contact Elise Pitt, Media & PR Officer at UOW, +61 2 4221 3079, +61 422 959 953 or