Obesity experts have been saying for over a decade that children who sit in front of the TV screen day in and day out tend to be heavier. However, experts are finding it’s not only the couch potato effect, but the television ads children are watching, along with other factors that can add inches to their waistlines.An American Academy of Pediatrics policy statement called “Children, Adolescents, Obesity and the Media,” published in the journal Pediatrics, argues that “junk food and fast food ads increase a child’s desire to eat those types of foods.”
The CNN “The Chart” blog reports, “Studies also show that snacking while watching the tube increases. And if kids stay up late at night while watching the tube or playing video games, their lack of sleep can be a major factor in raising their risk for obesity.”
MedPage Today reports that the statement also argues that “children and teens tend to snack while watching TV or online, and late-night use may interfere with sleep.” However, “too much time in front of the television or computer screen is driving the epidemic of childhood obesity in the U.S., according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.”
And it’s not just that many teens are couch potatoes, the academy argues in the journal Pediatrics: TV advertising drives sales of junk food, children and teens tend to snack while watching TV or online, and late-night use may interfere with sleep.
“We’ve created a perfect storm” of conditions that predispose young people to obesity, said lead author Victor Strasburger, MD, of the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, N.M.
“We couldn’t do a worse job as a society if we tried,” he told MedPage Today.
The academy’s policy statement calls obesity “a clear and present danger” to children and teens and says that evidence linking excessive TV with obesity is now “persuasive,” although the role of other media remain unclear.
Currently, the researchers found, U.S. children and teens spend an average of seven hours a day using various forms of media – more time than they spend doing anything except sleeping.
Physicians and other health professionals can play a role, the academy said, by encouraging parents to monitor children’s TV viewing, teach them about good nutrition, and discuss the impact of food advertising.
They should also continue to urge parents to limit non-educational screen time to no more than two hours a day, and avoid putting TV sets and internet connections in children’s bedrooms, the statement suggests.
“Docs need to be asking at least two media questions at every well-child, well-baby, well-adolescent visit,” Strasburger said. “How much entertainment screen time does the child or teenager spend per day and is there a TV set or internet connection in the bedroom?”
Among other things, the policy statement urges:
Strasburger said the policy statement is not an example of “nannyism” run wild.
Among other signs of the times, he noted that 75% of American youngsters now have a TV in their bedroom. “The evidence is clear and convincing that that puts children at risk for obesity,” he said.
Among the content they see on those screens, he noted, are thousands of ads every year for fast and junk food. “Food marketers spend $10 billion a year targeting children and teenagers,” he said. “There’s a significant relationship [with obesity] and it has to stop.”
Indeed, a study appearing in the same issue of Pediatrics found that food commercials touting fast and junk foods influenced children’s food choices – skewing them toward high-fat and high-carbohydrate items, according to Emma Boyland, PhD, of the University of Liverpool in England, and colleagues.
And the effect was greater for children who watched more than 21 hours of TV a week, they reported, compared with those who watched less.
Interestingly, those children also had a significantly greater body mass index (at P<0.05) than those who were less frequent viewers, Boyland and colleagues reported.
The findings came from an experiment in which 281 children, ages six to 13, were twice shown an episode of a popular cartoon, separated by two weeks.
In each case, the cartoon was preceded by five minutes of commercials – for toys at one showing and for food (mainly snacks and fast food) at the other, the researchers reported.
After each showing the children were given lists of various food items, both branded and unbranded, and asked what they’d like to eat. They were more likely to pick unhealthy foods after they had watched the food commercials, the researchers found.
To consider dozens and dozens of tips to help your family, consider picking up a copy of my book, SuperSized Kids: How to protect your child from the obesity threat.
Here are some of my blogs on “screen time” from the last year:
Also, I have a number of blogs with practical tips about TV and kids: