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The amount of time you’re spending on your phone may be affecting your weight without you realizing it. Aleksandar Georgiev/Getty Images
  • A new study found that teens who spent more than 2 hours per day on their smartphones were more likely to eat more processed foods and fewer fruits and vegetables.
  • Teens who spent more than 3 hours per day on a smartphone were significantly more likely to be overweight or obese.
  • Health experts say there are simple ways to reduce the negative effects that smartphone use may be having on your diet and health.

Screens and teens are a combination parents try to manage for multiple reasons.

A study out of South Korea adds one more reason to the list.

The study analyzed data of more than 53,000 Korean adolescents from the Korea Youth Risk Behavior Web-Based Survey and found that teens who used a smartphone for more than 2 hours per day were significantly more likely to eat more processed foods and fewer fruits and vegetables than teens who put their phones down more often.

Additionally, teenagers who spent more than 3 hours per day on a smartphone were significantly more likely to be overweight or obese.

“These results do not surprise me considering that screen time is a totally sedentary activity occupying time in which teens could be participating in sports or other physical activities,” Dr. Rekha B. Kumar, attending endocrinologist at Weill Cornell Medicine and medical director of the American Board of Obesity Medicine, told Healthline.

Other results from the study include:

  • Teens who spent at least 5 hours on their phone daily were more likely to drink carbonated and noncarbonated sugar-sweetened beverages, and eat fast food, chips, and instant noodles compared to respondents who spent less than 2 hours a day on their phone.
  • Respondents who used their phones to search for information had healthier eating behaviors than those who turned to their phones to chat, use messenger, play games, watch videos, listen to music, and connect on social media.
  • Teens who turned to their phone mostly to play games, watch videos, listen to music, or read webtoons or web novels were more likely to be overweight or obese.

Time can pass by quickly when a screen is in hand, making it easy to eat while on the phone and not pay attention to the amount of food you’re consuming.

“When we aren’t mindful about our eating (which occurs while we are eating while on a screen) we tend to vastly overeat. We are either mindlessly snacking, or eating too quickly, which doesn’t allow our digestive system enough time to signal to our brains that we are full, so we eat past the point of fullness,” Christina Brown, weight loss coach, told Healthline.

She said the pandemic contributed to this, since social distancing forced teens and adults to use screens for school, work, and social interactions with friends and family.

Researchers of the Korean study added that marketing of unhealthy foods that targets adolescents could also be compounding the problem.

“If we could just flip that around and have marketers focus more on healthy eating and how easy it can be to eat healthfully, we could lower the increasing numbers of overweight and obese children and adults,” said Brown.

While phones are part of many people’s lives, there are ways to keep them around and stay healthy.

Because many teens don’t prioritize healthy eating or exercising, Brown said it’s up to parents to stress their importance.

“We, as parents, can be good health role models for our children. Helping our teens set up boundaries around smartphone usage and emphasizing some sort of physical activity each day can truly help them grow up to be healthier,” she said.

The following are a few tips to get your teen (and yourself) started:

Don’t eat while on your phone

Brown suggests making a hard rule in which you put your smartphone down before allowing yourself to eat anything.

Kumar agreed: “We should take breaks from screens and have proper meals with friends/family and also put down our screens to enjoy physical activity in the outdoors when possible.”

Create a screen time limit

Allow a certain amount of time each day to spend on screens.

“Once they’ve amassed that amount of time, they have to find other options to keep them busy. Some of those options could be to take a walk or a bike ride, or get in some other type of workout,” said Brown.

Keep a food diary

Tracking everything you eat can help you become mindful of the quantity and quality of the food and drinks you consume.

“I will always stress the topic of structure when it comes to balancing food, exercise, and screen time, and healthy sleep,” said Kumar. “We need to keep track of our behavior and self-monitor our patterns with these things.”

Brown added that writing down everything you eat can stop you from eating that extra treat you’re craving.

“Plus, it can be quite eye-opening to really see how much you eat in a day,” she said.

Set a timer on your smartphone

To avoid sitting and staring at your phone for hours, consider setting its alarm to go off every hour as a reminder to get up and move around.

“Any extra movement you can get throughout the day, even if it is just several minutes each hour, will add up and have health benefits,” Brown said.

Stand with your phone

Rather than lying or sitting down and using your phone, try standing up and scrolling.

“This is similar to having a standing desk at work,” said Brown.

Get good sleep

Putting away your smartphone before bedtime can help your body get in sleep mode.

“We should sleep at night when our body’s hormonal rhythms are set for sleep and not for eating or screen time. When day and night get confused, our eating patterns are thrown off and our hunger and fullness signals don’t work normally, leading to excessive calorie intake and weight gain,” said Kumar.

Use screens to enhance your health

The benefit to smartphones is they offer access to information and tools that can enhance health, if used properly.

“We most definitely have much more information at the tips of our fingers via smartphones than we did just 15 years ago, and using this information to benefit our health is something that should be prioritized,” said Brown.

She points to nutrition tracking apps, which can help with accountability and being mindful of food choices.

“Many of my clients will look up the foods being served at a restaurant they are planning to go to prior to going in order to help them make the healthiest choice once they are there. Even without a nutrition tracking app, many restaurant websites will post the nutritional content of their meals,” said Brown.

Because the pandemic forced many people to rely on screens, Kumar adds that the availability of streamed training and exercise classes helped many people stay active, and could continue to post-pandemic.

“If one could have implemented structure with keeping food/meal times separate and continuing exercise, that would have helped prevent weight gain. We can incorporate our devices — things like Peloton, the Mirror, and others — [even though] they do use screens technically, but people are also active,” she said.