The root of America's health crisis is bad habits formed in childhood. To protect children from harm, parents are keeping kids indoors, where they get sick, watch TV and form lifelong habits of screen addiction, inactivity and junk-food overeating.
It's time to tag and release the children. We have the technology.
Shocking news about children's health
Seventy percent of American children don't get enough vitamin D, according to a recent study published in the journal Pediatrics. Vitamin D deficiency contributes to high blood pressure and heart disease, diabetes and obesity, bone disease, rickets and other major diseases.
Vitamin D isn't a vitamin, but a hormone produced by the body when skin is exposed to sunshine. You can supplement the diet with pills and fortified foods, but scientists say sunshine is best.
Another recent study published in the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine found another common behavior damaging children's health: watching TV.
For the first time ever, researchers are finding high blood pressure in children between the ages of 3 and 8, which they attribute to kids sitting around staring at screens. Kids studied spent an average of 5 hours a day doing "sedentary activities," mainly watching TV. The correlation is direct: The more TV time, the higher the blood pressure.
One researcher associated with the study said also that "TV viewing often comes with unhealthy snacking behavior, and also can lead to stress responses that disrupt sleep."
The study focused on the lack of activity associated with TV. But what are kids watching? The majority of children's TV advertising is for junk food. American kids see thousands of ads per year that convince them to want fatty, salty, sugary, and artificially colored junk foods.
Video games, the other sedentary activity of today's youth, don't program them with junk food ads, but may lead to behavioral problems in some kids.
A Harris Poll survey of 1,178 U.S. youths found that 8.5 percent of kids age 8 to 18 are what they call "pathological gamers" who are "addicted" to video games. They found a correlation between game addiction and Attention Deficit Disorder, or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).
The bottom line: Kids are sitting around for hours every day staring at screens, getting sick from lack of sunshine and exercise, all the while being programmed for poor diets and bad behavior.
Why is this happening?
One reason kids are spending more time indoors is that technology has made electronic entertainment far more interesting. Giant flat-screen TVs show high-definition (HD) children's programming. DVD and Blu-ray movies beckon, and, of course, console video games are incredibly fun to play.
But the other reason is over-protective parents.
When I was a kid back in , I, my siblings and my friends spent most of our free time running around outside. Mom had no idea where we were. We rode bikes and skateboards without helmets. We played baseball in the street. It's a miracle any of us survived. But none of the kids I knew had vitamin D deficiency, high blood pressure, obesity or what they used to call adult-onset diabetes.
Now, a majority of American children have one or more of these health problems.
Parents these days are way more protective of their kids - and it's hard to fault them for that. Helmets, strict limits on where to ride (mostly on the sidewalk in front of the house) and scheduled play dates are far more prevalent than the laissez-faire, just-be-home-in-time-for-dinner attitude my parents had.
Unfortunately, this brand of "protection" is causing direct harm to children. There's got to be a better way.
The solution: 'Big Brother' mother
Cell phones with GPS capability designed for kids give parents the best of both worlds. Parents can let kids play outside instead of watching a screen indoors, but they can also monitor junior's every movement and protect them from harm. They let parents call to check in -- and allow the child to phone home. Some even have panic buttons, and automatic alerts when kids are in danger.
Wherify's GPS Child Locator is a rugged GPS and cell phone wrist watch that enables parents to track kids on an online map. Parents can set specific times of day when the watch sends the child's location, and send text messages that can be read by the wearer. Pressing two buttons on the watch simultaneously calls 911. The watch locks onto the wrist, so kids can't remove it. Parents, however, can remotely unlock it.
The Num8 watch from the U.K.-based Lok8u lets parents monitor their kids' locations on the Lok8u Web site. They can also check in via SMS. By texting the watch, the watch replies with location. Location service is turned on when the watch is placed on the wrist. If the watch is removed, the parent's cell phone gets an alert immediately telling where it happened.
A company called Hop-On makes a product called the ChitterChatter Phone. It provides location data, and also has a one-button preprogrammed calling feature. The ChitterChatter Phone can be lashed to the wrist as a watch, but can also be worn around the neck or placed in a backpack or pocket.
The Amber Alert GPS gives location to the parents, but it also has a kind of "panic button" that, when pressed, sends an alert to up to five parent-programmed cell phone numbers. It also enables parents to set up a zone where the child is allowed to go. If junior exits the zone, the device sends out constant alerts showing current location. It has other features too, such as the ability to send alerts when the child is in a speeding car, or is in a hot place (such as a car with windows rolled up) or a cold place (such as a walk-in freezer).
TrackMyKids.com offers a device that isn't wearable as a wristwatch, but goes in a pocket or backpack. It shows not only where your child is, but everywhere he's been. It allows alerts when kids leave parent-designated zones, and has three programmable speed-dial buttons. It even has what the company calls "Taxi mode" that requires the child to respond once per minute.
If you're a parent, having your child wear or carry a GPS cell phone device is a great idea. But what we need is a mass cultural movement to embrace them. GPS cell phones should be as common on kids as sneakers and backpacks. Safety is multiplied when your kids -- and your kids' friends -- all have them. Children gravitate toward each other and play in groups. If any child has an accident, or gets lost or abducted, all the other kids can immediately alert parents and police, complete with exact location data.
Cell phones with GPS designed for kids help overprotective parents protect their offspring not only from strangers, accidents and getting lost, but also the disastrous health affects they are sure to suffer if kept indoors.