"Helicopter" parents make kids fat? What new study says

children, play, park, exercise, obesity, stock, 4x3
Flickr/Dana Kosko
children, play, park, exercise, obesity, stock, 4x3
Flickr/Dana Kosko

(CBS) Do helicopter parents make for hefty kids?

A provocative new study suggests that parents who closely monitor their children during outdoor play discourage them from engaging in high levels of physical activity.

"It's a catch-22 for today's parents, unfortunately," study author Dr. Jason Bocarro, associate professor of parks, recreation and tourism management at North Carolina State University, said in a written statement. "Many parents are worried about the safety of their children, so they tend to hover. The worry is - especially as we are seeing childhood obesity become an epidemic in this country - hovering is keeping kids from running around and playing with their friends and neighbors, and instead maybe sitting in front of the computer or television."

For the study, 16 students from the university spent eight weeks observing children at play in 20 neighborhood parks in Durham, N.C. The students coded the kids' activity levels from sedentary, moderately active, or vigorously active - and found that having a parent nearby suppressed kids' highly active play by about half, Dr. Bocarro said.

The study was published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

Dr. Bocarro said his findings suggest kids might be more active outdoors - and less likely to be seduced by video games and other sedentary leisure activities.- if overprotective parents toned down their vigilance a bit.

"I'm a parent, and I hate giving other parents advice," he told CBS News. "But I would just say 'think about whether you are hovering'. Can you back off and let them explore on their own?"

There's no doubt that kids need some help keeping the weight off. Rates of childhood obesity in the U.S. have tripled in the past 30 years. About 20 percent of children between the ages of 6 and 11 are now obese, along with 18 percent of adolescents 12 to 19 years of age.

The CDC has more on childhood obesity.