The Long Read

Is teenage obesity caused by increase in technology?

Over the last 10 years sales in internet-based technology have soared, from tablets to phones, screens seem to take up most of our young people’s time. However, are our young people becoming so obsessed with screens they are forgetting to go outside?

In 2015 TV Chef Jamie Oliver set about introducing a Sugar Tax in the United Kingdom. After stating “Governments over the past 30 years have done an incredible disservice to children” in the House of Commons, Mr Oliver got his wish. In March chancellor George Osborne released plans for a 24p a litre tax on sugary drinks.

This levy was introduced with the intention of reducing childhood obesity and raising £500 million which would go towards primary school sports. As with most laws, we won’t see the impact until 2018, two years after it’ll be introduced.

By 2018 the ‘obese children’ will be 11-15 and past the point of primary school health education. However, Public Health England have found that the sugar tax which is between 10 and 20% combined with dampening marketing and advertising of junk food, obesity rates will be reduced.

The proposal for junk food advertisements would mean no TV adverts would be allowed before 9pm, preventing children from seeing the unhealthy content during family programmes. Broadcaster OfCom has found that 22% of 10-15 year olds would still watch them.

It is important to note the obesity levels of 10-15 year olds as Members of Parliament do not seem to have paid attention to them. Instead they’ve chosen to focus on pumping money into primary school sport education.

In the UK between 2004 and 2013 there was no significant increase for childhood obesity, for 11-15 year olds there was a significant increase in those being classed as obese. 2011 saw a fifth of children aged 11-15 being classified as obese according to data from the Health Survey for England.

Yet it is estimated £520 million will be raised by the sugar tax, all of which will go towards primary school sport education. Yet statistics show secondary school children have higher trends in obesity than primary school.

Arguably, all is not to be blamed on the lack of sport education.

In 2014, a study showed that 34% of 5-15 year olds had their own internet based device and 62% used a tablet at home. Due to this, many children spend a lot of time on these devices rather than exercising or being outside.

new-piktochart_172_254ee171d899bf8705fcd64af688ce446d5da3d3.jpegA study by The Telegraph in 2014 found around half of parents interviewed said they didn’t let their children play outside due to concerns about their safety. 60% said they try to do more indoor activities, but these tend to revolve around devices such as gaming.

The study by The Telegraph was conducted on 1,000 parents, and showed that 26% of their children spent less than 30 minutes playing outside a week. 6 hour and 30 minutes less than NHS experts suggest should be spent exercising.

This is is not just a problem in the UK, worldwide research has shown a consistency with young people playing on screens instead of on grass.

In 2011 Australian researchers found 33 worldwide studies which evaluated health indications of screen-based behaviours in 12-18 year old girls. Their findings displayed there was strong evidence for a correlation between inactive behaviours caused by screen-based time and obesity.

Negative links were also discovered between screen time and physical activity, fitness, psychological well-being and social support. The researchers concluded screen-based behaviour is associated with a range of health consequences.

From September to November I conducted a study to find extra support for The Telegraph research discussed previously. Whilst the sample group was small it did both support and contradict previous research.

37.5% of parents said they allowed their children to be online for less than 5 hours a week and 25% said they could be online for 21-25 hours a week. All those who answered said their children spent less than 30 hours outside a week. 22.2% spent less than 5 hours outside and only 11.1% spent between 26 and 30 hours outdoors.

The research found that on average children spend 9.6 hours online compared to 10.7 hours outside.

It’s important to consider that parents may be worried about being judged if it seems that their children spend more time online than outside so they may lie when answering the questions.

Since 2014 Apple have had the majority of the smartphone market share, in 2016 they made up 46% of the UK smartphone market. Whilst there is not a direct correlation between sales of Apple products and obesity levels, since 2008 global sales of Apple products have increased dramatically as has obesity levels in under 16s.


In 2008/09 obesity levels for under 16s were at their highest according to England’s obesity levels published by Health and Social Care Information Centre. With 775 young people having a primary diagnosis of obesity. Comparing this to global sales of Apple products, in the final quarter of 2008 sales were at their lowest.

From 2012 until 2015 obesity levels remained stable with no major increases overall, whereas sales of Apple products rose steadily from 2012-2014. Sales in 2015 rose dramatically so we have to consider other options, including sales in other countries.

It is important to note, that in 2014/15 obesity levels for 25-34 year olds were almost triple under 16 with 1,960 having a primary diagnosis. Therefore, more may need to be done to focus on adults as opposed to young people.

With the ever increasing amount of technology available to young people it’s no surprise that they tend to enjoy being inside glued to a phone than going outdoors to play. The Government could perhaps take a closer look at spending the £500 million raised by the sugar tax on creating more outdoor activities for young adults, and not just putting money in primary school P.E.