7 Habits That Can Harm Your Kids' Health

Above all, you want your kids to be healthy. You serve balanced meals, schedule regular pediatrician and dentist appointments, and adhere to regular bedtimes. But sometimes, kids develop unhealthy habits that sabotage your good intentions. We talked to Doug Haddad (a.k.a. Dr. Doug), MS, CN, PhD, an educator in Simsbury, CT, and contributor to EmpoweringParents.com. He discussed the most unhealthy habits today’s kids face, and how to turn them into good ones that foster good health.

Bad Habit #1: Too Much Tech Time

Kids today spend "an average of seven hours a day" on tech devices, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. Children are living with electronic overload in an over-stimulated environment, and parents don’t really understand it because it’s a new problem.

Tech time isn’t limited to laptops and tablets. It includes all screens—phone, computer, tablet, and television. "There are days when kids need to use the computer for homework assignments and while, yes, that’s more educational, it’s still tech time. They’re sitting in front of a screen, exposed to radiation, and since they’re seated, they’re more sedentary," says Haddad. To strike a balance, "On those days, you don’t allow as much tech time," he advises.

The solution: Set boundaries for kids. Haddad suggests limiting tech time to a maximum of 30 to 60 minutes a day. The time can be divided, so maybe 30 minutes after school, and then another 30 minutes after dinner or homework.

Bad Habit #2: Too Much Junk Food

One of the major unhealthy habits for kids is eating junk food. "By nature, kids’ taste buds favor high sugar, high fat, and high salt foods, but these poor eating habits are causing problems with overweight and obesity," says Haddad. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than one-third of children and adolescents are overweight or obese.

"If parents take a look around the grocery store at the foods aimed at elementary school kids, it’s not hard to see why kids are eating what they’re eating," says Haddad. Even the ads shown during children’s television shows are geared toward unhealthy eating—another reason to limit screen time.

The solution: Provide healthy snacks, and make them accessible. Keep fruit and cut-up veggies washed and ready to eat; and offer kids water instead of high-sugar fruit juices and sodas.

Bad Habit #3: Lack of Exercise

Again, when kids spend more time playing video games, or watching TV, that’s less time spent exercising. An informal survey of Haddad’s seventh grade class in a rural community highlights the problem. "I asked them, 'How many of your parents have to ask you, or literally try to kick you outside to go play?' and I’d say about 70 percent of them raised their hands and said their parents had to literally kick them outdoors to play. I told them, years ago, 9 out of 10 kids would have to be pulled inside. It’s been a big paradigm shift."

The Solution: Get the kids outdoors. If you don’t feel safe sending your children outdoors alone to play, go with them. Take an after dinner bike ride together, start the day with a family walk, or play a friendly game of hoops after school to get moving.

Bad Habit #4: Carrying Heavy Backpacks

A too-packed backpack poses a lot of risks for children: The heavy weight throws their balance off, which may cause them to trip and fall, and it may cause alignment issues and of course, back pain. It’s recommended that kids carry not more than 10 to 15 percent of their bodyweight in their backpack. So a middle school kid who weighs 100 pounds shouldn’t be carrying a pack that weighs more than 15 pounds—but have you picked up your kid’s backpack lately? "Their bags are 20-plus pounds," says Haddad. What’s more, kids don’t know how to get the straps right, or they sling the bag over one shoulder.

The Solution: The obvious solution is to lighten the load, but that may not always work, so be sure your child wears the pack correctly. Make sure he uses both shoulder straps to distribute the weight evenly, and ensure the straps are tight (to secure the pack close to the body), and properly adjusted, so that the pack rests evenly in the middle of your child’s back.

Bad Habit #5: Practicing Poor Hygiene

Kids drink out of each other’s water bottles, they’re lax on hand washing (before eating and after using the restroom), and they’re just not aware of what germs are and how to keep themselves safe, say Haddad. "I’m a science teacher, and when I talk about bacteria, kids don’t have a sense of what it looks like, and since they don’t really see it, they don’t understand that it can make them sick," he explains.

The Solution: In his classes, Haddad conducts an effective experiment that shows kids how bacteria grows and how soap can kill it, but at home, you can model good hygiene—practice routine hand washing and maintain clean surfaces. The Hasbro Children’s Hospital in Providence, RI, recommends parents and caregivers remind children to wash their hands for as long as it takes them to sing a song like "Happy Birthday" twice.

Bad Habit #6: Unfriendly Competition

Whatever happened to being a good sport? "I’ve been a coach for a number of years, and see a lot of unfriendly competition in sports, as well as academics, nowadays," says Haddad. "The kids are picking up on it from the pro athletes." The problem: This type of competition can adversely affect the self-esteem of an individual. A child may hear that he or she is not good enough, and decide to quit at something that may have been inherently pleasurable, Haddad explains.

The Solution: Instead of encouraging your child to be "the winner," encourage her to try her best. Also, experts at North Carolina State University suggest simply playing games with your child—card games, relay races, basketball, even video games. According to the report Children and Competition, "encouraging them to flex their competitive muscles in a secure environment helps them learn they can lose a game without losing self-confidence."

Bad Habit #7: Lack of Sleep

Research has shown that poor sleeping habits in kids are closely tied to a host of issues, including being overweight or obese, having behavior problems, and struggling with academic performance. In addition, kids that don’t get enough sleep are more likely to have problems with language and memory issues. Haddad has found that when some children get hyped up from lack of sleep, the symptoms may be mistaken for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

The Solution: "I tell parents to keep a consistent schedule," says Haddad. "During the summer, gradually allow them to stay up a little later, and then as school gets closer, gradually move up their bedtime." The small changes in schedule make for a smoother transition and less adverse reactions from lack of sleep.

Reviewed by Doug Haddad, MS, CN, PhD.http://www.empoweringparents.com/


Doug Haddad, MS, CN, PhD, and contributor to EmpoweringParents.com.

"Childhood Obesity Facts." Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. February 27, 2014.  

"Media and Children." American Academy of Pediatrics. Page accessed July 23, 2014.  

"Teach Children to Practice Good Hygiene." Hasbro Children’s Hospital. Page accessed July 23, 2014. 

"Sleep: Waking Up to Sleep’s Role in Weight Control." Harvard School of Public Health. Page accessed July 23, 2014. 

"Children and Competition." North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service/North Carolina State University College of Agricultural & Life Sciences. Published electronically July, 1995.