Acquire the license to the best health content in the world
Contact Us

TV Ads Add Pounds to Our Kids

Report says children are bombarded with commercials for junk food

THURSDAY, Feb. 26, 2004 (HealthDayNews) -- Word from the front in the battle against childhood obesity in America seems to grow more unsettling by the day.

Now comes news that advertising basically provides a super-size conduit from junk food straight to your child's waistline.

That's the conclusion of a new report from the Kaiser Family Foundation, titled The Role of the Media in Childhood Obesity. The review of more than 40 studies turned up the not-surprising finding that children who spend the most time with the media are the most likely to be overweight.

"Media" here refers primary to television, says Vicky Rideout, vice president of the Kaiser Family Foundation, but, "advertisers are increasingly seeking other ways to put messages in front of kids."

There is a big push on the Internet, for instance, with food companies devising Web sites just for children, and "advergames" where kids can play games about candy and other unhealthy foods. According to Nielsen ratings, some sites can attract 800,000 kids per month. If a child plays a game for 12 minutes, "that's like a 12-minute commercial," Rideout says. "Plus advertisers can get information about the kids and target them."

In addition, there is increasing product placement in movies and video games. "Kids are a high-priority target for food companies and marketers," Rideout says. "A great deal of marketing expertise and firepower are being aimed at them to eat foods."

The study's findings strike a chord with nutrition experts.

"The advertisers and food companies themselves are truly trying to dodge responsibility for this," says Samantha Heller, senior clinical nutritionist at New York University Medical Center in New York City. "Their hunger is for money and they're playing on the hunger of children for sweets and unhealthy foods by seducing them with appealing commercials that specially target children."

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the proportion of children aged six to 11 who are overweight has more than doubled since 1980. During the same time period, the rate for adolescents has tripled.

Being overweight, of course, brings with it the risk of a host of serious health problems, including diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

The Kaiser report does not involve original research but is, according to the authors, the first time so much research from a variety of disciplines has been brought together in one place.

According to research cited in the report, the typical American child is bombarded with about 40,000 ads a year on television alone. The majority of ads targeted to children are for candy, cereal, soda and fast food.

Many of those ads use children's beloved TV and movie characters, everything from SpongeBob Cheeze-Its to Scooby-Doo cereals and Teletubbies Happy Meals, the report says.

Children faced with this onslaught are more likely to choose unhealthy foods, studies show. Some of the blame rests with parents. "One study showed that parents were feeding children six months to two years [of age] junk food, all the stuff we're saying is so bad for them," Heller says.

Much of the research in the new study also revealed an association between the amount of time spent lounging in front of the television and a child's body weight.

But contrary to conventional wisdom, this does not seem to be because television is taking the place of physical activity. The evidence suggests those children who don't watch as much TV may be engaging in other sedentary activities such as reading or talking on the phone. One study did find that watching television and videos lowered children's metabolic rates to a level below that of sleeping.

Conversely, when television time is reduced, children are more likely to lose some of that extra fat.

Children also tend to snack while using media such as television, the research shows.

But if media can have this much negative influence on children's nutrition and health, it should also have the potential of playing a positive role in reducing childhood obesity, the report states. This would take the form of programs that teach children about healthy eating, for instance.

Policy options, such as regulating food ads and expanding public education campaigns, could also attack the problem, the study says.

Possibilities include targeting advertisers and food companies by writing local, state and federal representatives. The food industry could also find ways to be part of the solution, Rideout says.

Parents have to bear much of the responsibility, Heller says. "Children's taste preferences begin to be developed at very young ages, between 2 and 3. That's the first place to make the change," she says. "Try to get them to have good eating habits very early on. That would also mean that parents have to start to learn what healthy eating is and to be role models for it."

When children get to be 3 or 4 years old, parents need to keep them away from the television as much as possible. "That way children will not be as likely to be as taken in by advertising," Heller says. "The difficulty lies in that parents can't use the television as a babysitter, which I can certainly understand wanting to do."

"It's a very tough nugget," she continues. "We have the right of free speech and advertising and we're a capitalist society. How do you stop this flood of advertising and bad food to children? It's hard."

More information

For more on children's nutrition, visit the USDA/ARS Children's Nutrition Center at Baylor College of Medicine. For more on childhood obesity, visit the American Obesity Association.

SOURCES: Vicky Rideout, vice president, Kaiser Family Foundation, Menlo Park, Calif.; Samantha Heller, M.S., R.D., senior clinical nutritionist, New York University Medical Center, New York City; The Role of Media in Childhood Obesity
Consumer News