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Internet use not a crucial factor in teenage obesity

Millions of teenagers spend entire weekends behind computer screens, unable to say no to YouTube, online games or social media. Unhealthy say parents and experts: Internet encourages lethargy and leads to obesity. But according to a study that researchers at the Institute of Social and Preventive Medicine in Switzerland will publish soon in the International Journal of Obesity, things are not that bad at all.

The researchers followed a group of 621 young people aged 14 from spring 2012 to spring 2014. They determined at the start and end of this period which of the teenagers were overweight. They then looked at whether there was a correlation between internet use at weekends and the likelihood of being overweight.


The teenagers' BMI increased by 4.8 percent over the two years of the study. So there was a correlation between internet use and overweight. Multivariate analysis showed that the chance of the teenagers being overweight in 2014 doubled if they spent more than two hours on the internet during weekends.

But a far more important factor was whether the teenagers were overweight at the start of the study. Those who were already overweight in 2012 were 20 times more likely to also be overweight in 2014.

Internet use not a crucial factor in teenage obesity

When the researchers tried to identify the factors that might have caused an increase in bodyweight between 2012 and 2014, they found no statistically significant relationships.

Obesity researchers suspect that internet use goes hand in hand with obesity because time spent on the internet is at the expense of time spent being active. This is known as the displacement theory. If this theory holds, then parents can help their teenage children to become healthier by limiting the amount of time they spent at the computer. Sounds logical, but it's unlikely to work, according to the researchers.

"Being overweight at baseline is the main predictor of an overall overweight compared to excessive Internet use", they wrote. "Thus, the displacement theory is not confirmed by our results as in the end Internet does not seem to move other activities and have a strong effect on adolescents' weight."

"Moreover, among youths not overweight at baseline, an excessive use of the Internet is not significantly associated with a BMI increase over time. As overweight and obesity are complex phenomena, they have to be studied in connection with other variables, not only in association with one sedentary activity. Consequently, trying to reduce BMI only by decreasing Internet use could be insufficient."

Int J Obes (Lond). 2015 Aug 7. doi: 10.1038/ijo.2015.146. [Epub ahead of print].

Watching TV is unhealthy; using computer is not 20.09.2013