Today’s kids are not as crazy about television as their parents and grandparents were. But they tend to log more hours at the computer playing video games, connecting with pals through social networking sites, and watching YouTube videos.

Call it a more interactive couch potato. Yet too much time in front of the computer can still pose health risks, as can vegetating in front of the television, according to a recent study from Iowa State University and the National Institute on Media and the Family.

More Screen Time Equals Greater Risk for Obesity

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends limiting total entertainment media time to no more than two hours of quality programming a day. Kids who exceed the recommendation are three to four times as likely to be overweight than those who minimize screen time, the 2007 study has confirmed.

Children who log more screen time and walk fewer than the recommended steps per day—as endorsed by the AAP, 11,000 for girls and 13,000 for boys—are even more at risk. Boys are 4.5 times as likely to be overweight, and girls are 3 times as likely.

In the study, which focused on 700 kids ages 7 to 12, only 10 percent of boys and 20 percent of girls who met the recommendations for physical activity and screen time were overweight. In contrast, 35 percent to 40 percent of kids who didn’t meet either recommendation were overweight. Increased screen time and decreased physical activity appeared to pose equal risk, though girls appeared to be slightly more influenced by physical activity.

The surprising finding in the research is that many children who are physically active—easily logging enough steps per day—still find time for their computers and televisions. Such kids, though energetic, are nevertheless at a higher risk for obesity than those who are both physically active and less interested in computer or TV time.

“Parents may assume because their child is physically active, that other variable is taken care of,” says Kelly Laurson, an assistant professor at the School of Kinesiology and Recreation at Illinois State University. “What we found were two separate risk factors.”

In other words, even relatively active children should limit their time in front of the screen.

Parents face several dilemmas as they try to monitor their kids’ screen time, especially as children get older. Many parents say they don’t want to be overly controlling in how their child spends free time, especially if he’s getting good grades.

The ready access kids have to computers and television also makes things more difficult. It’s especially hard for parents who want their children to take advantage of the computer for schoolwork but don’t want them to spend time surfing the Internet recreationally.

“Research shows [that] parents who set great examples for their kids see their kids adopt healthy habits,” Laurson says.

Supervise Computer Use, Limit Access

The Iowa State study sought to determine the value of the current AAP recommended guidelines for screen time and physical activity, not to provide solutions for parents whose kids don’t meet the guidelines. Still, the data does lend insight, he says: “Just having a TV in the bedroom is a risk factor. Children who have a TV in the bedroom watch more TV.”

The same is true for computers. For safety’s sake, experts caution against keeping a computer or other Internet-enabled device in a child’s bedroom. Parents need to make sure their child is following house rules for safe and appropriate Internet use. Experts say limiting household computer use to one in a public area like a family room can help parents keep tabs.

According to Laurson, the data also revealed a gap between how much time parents think their children spend in front of a flickering screen and how much time they actually spend doing so: Kids reported spending more screen time than their parents reported on their behalf. Not surprisingly, as parents underestimate their kids’ screen time, they overestimate the amount of physical activity, Laurson says. Such discrepancies suggest that parents should be more realistic about how their children are spending time.

When considering screen time, the study included recreational computer use and television watching—“sedentary, nonproductive things,” Laurson explains. It did not include educational pursuits on the computer. Parents attempting to set limits may need to hover more than they’d like to make sure their children are really doing schoolwork.

The study also found that kids generally enjoy wearing pedometers, Laurson says. Parents can use this device, which counts how many steps the wearer takes, to get a handle on every family member’s level of activity. Spending more time walking together could diminish the child’s available time for and interest in TV and computer activities. By adhering to realistic guidelines for both physical activity and screen time, parents can greatly reduce their child’s risk of being overweight.

Journalist Patti Ghezzi covered education and schools for 10 years for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. She lives in Avondale Estates, Ga., with her family, which includes husband Jason, daughter Celia, and geriatric mutt Albany.