WHETHER it's Balamory or Jackanory, leaving the children ensconced in front of the television could lead to a lifetime of ill-health, a major study has confirmed.
Parents may be pleased their children are sitting comfortably, but scientists in New Zealand suggest being in front of the TV for more than two hours a day creates a higher risk of smoking, gaining excess weight and having high cholesterol as adults. Cardiovascular fitness would also be significantly lowered by as early as the age of 26, according to the research.
The experts behind the 30-year study are urging parents to limit their children's TV viewing to no more than one or two hours a day. Ideally, they say, youngsters should be rationed to less than an hour a day - a thought that may drive many parents to distraction.
The news comes less than a month after Tom McCabe, the deputy health minister, called childhood obesity in Scotland \"a medical timebomb\". The latest figures show that 20 per cent of children are clinically obese by the age of 12 and almost one in 12 is obese at two.
The New Zealand study suggests the problem is amplified by parents allowing children to watch too much TV.
Led by Dr Robert Hancox at the University of Otago, the research involved about 1,000 children born in 1972 and 1973. The children were followed up at regular intervals, with their parents giving details of weekly viewing habits.
When the study subjects were 26 years old, their body mass index (BMI) was assessed, with a range of measurements made relating to height, weight, blood pressure, cholesterol and cardiovascular fitness. Calculated by dividing someone's weight in kilograms by their height in metres squared, the BMI measures body fat.
Writing in the Lancet medical journal, the scientists said there was a clear link between television viewing in childhood and adolescence and a range of heightened health risks.
The results showed that youngsters exposed to more than two hours a day of TV could attribute 17 per cent of being overweight, 15 per cent of raised blood cholesterol, 17 per cent of smoking and 15 per cent of poor cardiovascular fitness directly to their childhood viewing habits. The results remained the same after taking into account adjustments for factors such as social background, BMI at age five, parents' BMI, parental smoking and the subjects' physical inactivity at age 15.
Dr Hancox said: \"
Our results suggest that excessive television viewing in young people is likely to have far-reaching consequences for adult health.
\"We concur with the American Academy of Pediatrics that parents should limit children's viewing to one to two hours per day - in fact, data suggest that less than one hour a day would be even better.\"
He said parents might find it difficult to impose such a regime, but it was worth the effort, as adult lifestyle changes aimed at losing weight, improving fitness, lowering cholesterol levels and giving up smoking were \"notoriously difficult to achieve\".
In January, Jack McConnell, the First Minister, launched a ?24 million drive to tackle obesity among children in an attempt to counter the culture of inactivity. He pledged to recruit 600 \"active school co-ordinators\" in an attempt to put physical activity back into the curriculum.
Last month, the Scottish Executive said it would recruit 400 new physical education teachers to ensure that all children have at least two hours of taught activity each week. The move is in addition to the ?65 million Hungry for Success programme, which aims to move children into eating healthy, balanced diets provided in school canteens.
However, Marion Giles, 36, from Dennistoun, Glasgow, who has two children, Josh, six, and Chloe, four, said prising kids from the TV was a job in itself.
\"We have three televisions in our house, and two of them have kids' programmes on constantly,\" she said. \"We try to exercise as a family, like cycling and walking, but sometimes it's just easier to let them sing along with PC Plum in Bal