Remember all those studies that show a direct correlation between the number of hours kids watch TV and their weight? The conclusions of these studies all warn that too much television leads to an all too sedentary life, which leads to obesity.
Well. Today a study was released which concluded that it’s not the hours of TV, but the number of junk food commercials! Oh, those savvy junk food marketers. Did you know that by the time a child is 5 years old, they have seen an average of more than 4,000 television commercials for food annually? During Saturday morning cartoons, children see an average of one food ad every five minutes! And up to 95 percent of those ads are for junk foods.
The UCLA School of Public Health study published in the February 2010 issue of the American Journal of Public Health is the first to break down different kinds of television content to see whether or not the different kinds of content may have different kinds of effects on obesity.
From the Medical News Today article covering the new study:
The researchers gathered data from primary caregivers of 3,563 children, ranging from infants to 12-year-olds, in 1997. Through time-use diaries, study respondents reported their children’s activities, including television viewing, throughout the course of an entire weekday and an entire weekend day.
Caregivers were also asked to report the format – television programs, DVDs or videos – and the names of the programs watched. This data was used to classify television viewing into either educational or entertainment programming and to determine whether or not it contained advertising or product placement. A follow-up was conducted in 2002.
The analysis controlled for the amount of physical activity and the children’s gender, age, race/ethnicity, mother’s body mass index (BMI), education and sleep time.
Among all children, commercial viewing was significantly associated with higher BMI, although the effect was stronger for children younger than 7 than for those older than 7, the study found.
“The persistence of these results, even when the child’s baseline weight status was controlled, suggests that the association between commercial television viewing and obesity does not arise solely or even primarily because heavier children prefer commercial television,” said Zimmerman, professor and chair of health services at the School of Public Health and the lead author of the study.
Non-commercial viewing, including watching DVDs or educational television programming, had no significant association with obesity.
According to the authors, the findings strongly suggest that steering children away from commercial television may be effective in reducing childhood obesity, given that food is the most commonly advertised product on children’s television and the fact that almost 90 percent of children begin watching television regularly before the age of 2.
The authors conclude: “steering children away from commercial television may have a meaningful effect in reducing childhood obesity…The existence of many high-quality, enjoyable, and educational programs available on DVD for all ages should make it relatively easy for health educators and care providers to nudge children’s viewing toward less obesogenic television content [my emphasis].”
Relatively easy? They have to be kidding. Food commercials are ubiquitous in kids’ lives.
For example, Lisa Sutherland and her colleagues at Dartmouth took a look at the prevalence of food brands (mostly junk foods) in movies from 1996 to 2005 (Pediatrics, February 2010). There are loads of such placements, and movies aimed at younger kids tend to have the most.
As for industry self-regulation, Kelly Brownell and his colleagues at Yale have plenty to say about how it’s not working and what would be needed to make it work (also in the February American Journal of Public Health).
Michelle Obama may not be able to touch this one, but Congress can. And it should.
Once again I find myself uncomfortable with this debate. On the one hand, I loathe excessive government intrusions into parental rights. My own kids, for example, are very sheltered from food advertising. They don’t watch TV. They don’t go to public school. And with few exceptions, they don’t even watch kid movies. But avoiding food advertising wasn’t even a factor in any of those lifestyle decisions. And if the average parent working a job, sending their children to daycare and public school and the like really did want to help their child avoid that advertising, how could they do it without radically changing their entire lifestyle? Yes, you can limit the kinds of TV your child watches, but that control only goes so far. What do you do about the TV or movies your child watches at daycare, at school, or at friends’ houses? Shouldn’t there be some kind of protection there for children, for those who are too young or too ignorant?
Another point of note: children are often the target of marketing, even though they don’t have the buying power. Why is that? Because it works! Study after study has shown that kids have the power to sway the buying decisions of those in authority over them. Sure, you can blame the parents for giving in, hold them accountable for what their kid eats. But that blame only goes so far. Again, what are you to do about what your children are fed in daycare, in school, or at their friends’ homes? What do you do when your children are old enough to buy food from vending machines and convenience stores? Yes, you can teach them better, but they’re still kids. You’d like to hope they’d exercise better judgment, but if they don’t you can’t hold it against them. That’s why they’re the children and we’re the adults.