The amount of time kids spend in front of a screen has concerned parents since television was invented. Now rises in screen time have been linked to large increases in binge eating disorder in children, a new joint study from the University of Toronto and the University of California at San Francisco finds.

Binge Eating Disorder (BED) is the most common eating disorder in the United States, and is characterized by a pattern of eating a large amount of food in a short amount of time, followed by feelings of shame or regret. Data collected during the years 2016-2019 from the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development Study reflected the screen use and binge eating patterns of over 11,000 preteens, aged 9 to 11 years old, the largest study of its kind ever conducted.

There are simple steps parents concerned about screen time and its possible effects on their children’s mental health and eating habits can take.

Not all types of screen time are equal when it comes to elevating binge eating risk in children. The researchers broke screen time down into six categories, including social media, TV and movie streaming, and texting. Each additional hour of screen time via social media/networking sites was associated with a 62 percent increased risk of binge eating disorder after one year, whereas each additional hour streaming movies or TV was associated with a 39 percent increased risk for BED.

The higher risk of binge eating posed by social media use may be related to greater exposure to unrealistic beauty and fitness standards that can trigger self-comparison, particularly in tweens and teens, the researchers suggest. This negative body image may lead to subsequent binge eating behaviors, University of Toronto researcher, Kyle T. Ganson, hypothesized.

With movies and TV, the risk of binge eating may have more to do with the size of the dose of media than the content itself. “Children may be more prone to overeating when distracted in front of screens,” researcher, Jason Nagata, of the University of California San Francisco, said in a statement. “Binge watching television may lead to binge-eating behaviors because of overconsumption and loss of control”.

The study’s authors are quick to point out that although its data are from before the global pandemic, its findings are more relevant now than ever. Screen time has become a dominant aspect of most everyone’s daily life, including children, many of whom are still attending school remotely and are limited in their ability to interact with friends and peers in person.

There are simple steps parents concerned about screen time and its possible effects on their children’s mental health and eating habits can take — such as instituting a “tech-free” policy for family meal times and coming up with other family guidelines for screen time.

Eliminating the potential distractions of smartphones, TV and other screens from meal times helps children learn to focus on their food and develop the body awareness to know when they are full and to stop eating. At the same time, family meals offer an antidote to children’s screen-filled days, and an opportunity to talk and receive social support, all of which help bolster a child’s overall health and sense of connection.

The study is published in the International Journal of Eating Disorders.