Obesity among Kids: A Media Problem?

Parents already worry about television's influence on their kids' behavior. Now, if a new study is right, they may have to start worrying about its influence on their kids' weight and health too.

A new report out today from The Kaiser Family Foundation of Menlo Park, Calif., summarizes a year of research from the United States and Europe about the role the media play in childhood obesity. And the study concludes obesity is linked to the amount of time children spend watching television and videos, using the Internet and playing computer and video games.

Children spend an average of 5 ½ hours a day using these media, more time than is spent on any other activity except sleeping, the study notes.

One study cited, which looked at adolescents aged 12 to 17, found the prevalence of obesity increased by 2 percent for every hour of television viewed.

Scooby Snacks

Children are also strongly influenced by advertisements promoting food and drinks, Kaiser maintains. According to one study cited, 72 percent of all children's ads are for candy, cereal and fast food. Even the classroom advertising seen on the school service Channel One features candy, soft drinks, fast foods and snacks in seven out of 10 ads.

Ads strongly influence the buying habits of children and their parents, Kaiser says. Three out of four requests for grocery items made by children were for products advertised on television, found one study cited in the report.

TV and movie characters' role in children's food choices also come under Kaiser's scrutiny. Figures like SpongeBob SquarePants, Scooby-Doo and the Incredible Hulk have all been enlisted in children's food marketing campaigns.

One food industry executive declares a cross-promotion featuring popular characters "is a way to … infuse the emotion and popularity of a current kids' hit into a product."

Not surprisingly, Kaiser said reducing the time children spend watching television and other media was found to be an effective way to address childhood obesity because it encourages children to play outdoors and engage in other, more physical activities.

Among Kaiser's recommendations for moderating the media's role in childhood obesity:

Place limits on advertising aimed at preschoolers.

Eliminate cross-promotions between cartoon characters and unhealthy food products.

Provide "equal time" for messages on nutrition and fitness aimed at children.