TV and other screen media have been strongly linked to the alarming growth of childhood obesity currently reaching epidemic proportions. Obese children commonly suffer from high blood pressure, diabetes, respiratory and orthopedic problems, sleep difficulty and depression. Moreover, 80% of adolescents who are overweight will be obese adults (www.kaiserfamilyfoundation.files.wordpress.com/2013/01/the-role-of-media-in-childhood-obesity.pdf).
TV Plays a Major Role
While there are various reasons for the increase of childhood obesity, TV has been found to play a major role. Many studies show that children who spend a lot of time watching TV are more likely to be overweight than those who do not. Not only has TV been found to contribute significantly to obesity but longitudinal studies in the UK show that “For each additional hour of TV watching on weekends at age 5, the risk of [these children’s] adult obesity increased by 7%” (www.net.gov/worksheet.cfm?worksheet_ed=251388).
Just having a TV in a child’s bedroom increases the risk of obesity. A study of 2,761 parents in New York found that 40% of children had TV’s in their bedrooms and that these children were more likely to be overweight or have obesity problems. In fact, “Children and teenagers who watch more TV tend to consume more calories or eat fewer fruits and vegetables” (www.pediatrics.aappublications.com/content/128/1/201.full).
How Does TV Contribute to Obesity?
The obvious question is, “How does TV contribute to obesity?” Interestingly, while many studies show that there is definitely a connection, that connection is not clearly understood. Some suggestions include the sedentary nature of TV watching as well as the more physical activities it replaces, the possible suppression of satiety cues, later bedtimes and less sleep, and the very high number of advertisements of food. We do know that children and teens who watch more TV have diets higher in fats, drink more sodas and sugary drinks and consume more calories and fewer fruits and vegetables than those who watch less TV (AAP – see link above).
Regarding advertisements for food on TV, research shows that the choices children make concerning what they eat and their parents’ purchases of food are highly influenced by advertising. The number of ads viewed by children on TV has doubled from 20,000 to 40,000 since the 1970’s. Most of the ads for kids are for candy, cereals and fast foods. As the Kaiser Family Foundation study notes (link given above), “…it appears likely that the main mechanism by which media use contributes to childhood obesity may well be through children’s exposure to billions of dollars worth of food advertising and cross-promotional marketing at the very youngest ages, with children’s favorite media characters often enlisted in the sales pitch.”
To show how effective advertising to children is, one study of 63 children had them taste 5 pairs of the same food such as milk and French fries. In each pair, one package containing the food was in a brand name package while the other was in an unbranded package. The majority of the children preferred the food in the branded package (http://healthyamericans.org/reports/obesity2009).
In addition to advertising affecting food choices, there is evidence that there is more snacking during TV watching. Furthermore, TV and other screen media disrupt sleep patterns and less sleep is believed to result in a stronger chance of obesity. Among the recommendations the AAP makes to combat childhood obesity is that pediatricians ask children and their parents two key questions regarding the use of media: 1. How much time each day is spent using screen media? 2. Is there a TV in the bedroom and/or an unrestricted, unmonitored internet connection in the house?
Certainly, parents today are finding it increasingly difficult to limit their children’s media use, the messages it gives their children, and their children’s consumption of unhealthy foods. What can be done about this growing problem?
What do you think? We would like to hear your ideas.
Photo credit: o-Baby-Fast-Food galleryhip.com