A study by the National Health Examination Survey (NHES) concluded that even after controlling variables such as race, prior obesity, and socio-economic status, among children aged twelve to seventeen, the prevalence of obesity increased by 2% for each additional hour of TV watched (Dietz & Gortmaker, 1985). Another study by Dietz and Gortmarker in the 80’s took a survey of a nationally representative sample of 700 kids ages ten to fifteen and concluded “the odds of being overweight were 4.6 times greater for youth watching more than 5 hours of television per day compared with those watching for 0–1 hour” (Gortmarker, Must, Sobol, Peterson, Colditz, & Dietz, 1996).
A longitudinal cohort study of children aged six to fourteen concluded findings that children at age six who spent more than 120 minutes/day watching TV were less active and had higher body mass indices at ages eight and ten, than children who watched less TV at age six (Hands & Chivers, 2011). Lastly, a qualitative analysis taken from the International Journal of Behavior Nutrition and Physical Activity conducted 232 studies of 983,840 five to seventeen-year-olds and revealed a dose-response relation between increased sedentary behavior and unfavorable health outcomes. Through a meta-analysis of their studies, they revealed a 13% increase in the risk of childhood obesity for every additional hour/day of watching TV (Tremblay-Gorber et al., 2011). As a result, these studies reveal insight that when children are not encouraged and motivated to engage in physical activity and are instead glued to a television set the results have not shown to have positive outcomes. However, in opposition to this view, as we continue to research sedentary behavior versus physical activity other researchers have actually presented findings that discredits a correlation to be true.
A journal titled Physical Activity and Sedentary Behaviors In Youth: Issues and Controversies, sought to conduct studies to specifically investigate if key sedentary behaviors, such as watching TV, displaced our youth from engaging in physical activity. One of their studies surveyed 2,494 children, in the US and UK, aged eleven to fifteen years old and had them complete a physical activity checklist that included active and sedentary behaviors. By using cluster analysis their key discoveries concluded that both boys and girls showed little relationship between physical activities and sedentary behaviors. For example, girls who had the highest TV viewing and telephone usage were also still shown to be reasonably active.
Their findings suggested that sedentary behaviors like watching TV were not necessarily obstacles for adolescents to engage in active behaviors. By watching TV they were not completely displaced to physical activity therefore concluding TV viewing did not show a significant relation to active behavioral patterns. Instead, their findings highlighted the facts that there is indeed time for youth to engage in both behaviors (Biddle, Gorely, Marshall, Murdey, & Cameron, 2004). Alternatively, it is not the sedentary behavior only at fault for why TV contributes to pediatric obesity. It is in combination with unhealthy food advertisements and the mindless consumption of unhealthy foods while watching TV that truly contributes to the risk of obesity for children.
The main goal of any advertising is to entice the viewer to become interested in their product and ultimately obtain a purchase, thus it should come at no shock that food-based advertising on TV influences when, how, and what people, especially children, choose to eat. When food advertising have been researched to account for the largest percentage of ads on TV in all countries, its effects are truly worldwide. (Guran & Bereket, 2011) In a behavioral study researchers discovered although parents are responsible for buying goods to be eaten at home the food they chose to purchase is directly influenced by their children’s requests. When unhealthy foods are frequently advertised to children these items become their frequent desire. Not only does the effects of watching TV highlight their food choice but also contributes to their ability to resist temptation when presented these foods (Harrison & Marske, 2011).
The success that advertising companies gain from targeting children must be true when the number of commercials exposed to our youth continues to increase over time. Researchers in the late 1970’s estimated that children on average watched about 20,000 TV commercials in a single year. In the late 1980s this number increased to more than 30,000 commercials in a year (Story & French, 2004) In more recent times, in the 1990s, this number increasingly rose to more than 40,000 commercials a year. (Kundel, 2001) This continual increase in the number of ads being exposed to our youth has made them prime targets for many of these ads. Due to the fact that children are highly impressionable and susceptible to their environment these constant bombarding of commercials make our young vulnerable to the messages and products being advertised to them.
The American Psychological Association generalized that 50% of all advertisements on children’s shows were based on unhealthy food and these influences have led children to develop very unhealthy eating habits. When breaking down the types of ads that were targeted to children during these shows the following statistics were concluded: 34% of ads were on candy/snacks, 28% on cereal, 10% on fast food, 4% on dairy products, 1% on fruit juices, and 0% on fruits and vegetables (APA, n.d.). This ridiculous statistic directly translates to the unhealthy cravings children have after viewing them. An observational study agrees with this finding when it conducted a 19-month study of 500 middle school students, all from ethnically diverse backgrounds. Using linear regression analysis the study discovered that each additional hour of television that was viewed per day correlated with a decreased amount of servings for fruits and vegetables among these adolescents. (Boynton-Jarrett, Thomas, Peterson, Wiecha, Sobol, & Gortmaker, 2003). Therefore, our children are not getting their recommended amounts of fruits and vegetables because their unhealthy cravings are heavily influenced by the foods they see on TV.
This influence, or better term hypnosis, of what foods children desire to eat was shown to be true in experimental studies as well. One study developed a randomized controlled trial for a group of children aged two to six years old in Head Start. They divided the sample into two groups showing both popularized children’s cartoons. The difference in these groups was clear. One group was shown the cartoon embedded with commercials while the other group saw the cartoon with no commercials at all. When they were asked to choose their preference between similar pairs of products, the group of children who viewed the commercials were significantly more likely to choose the advertised products versus the group who were uninfluenced (Borzekowki & Robinson, 2001). This demonstrates that children’s choice of products was not their own preference at all, but the constant exposure to advertisements and images they frequently saw on TV.
Not only are children hypnotized and influenced to want what they see advertised on TV, but even worse some develop misconceptions about what they believe to be healthy based on what they learn on TV. Very early studies in the ’70s showed results that 70% of children aged six to eight years old thought fast foods were more nutritious than a home-cooked meal. (Donahue, Meyer, & Henke, 1978). As well, several years later another study was conducted taking a group of 4th and 5th graders. They were shown a variety of similarly paired food items, one being a healthy option next to a very similar but unhealthy food option. Through this study, children that watched more television were significantly more likely to choose the unhealthy choice as the food they believed to be healthy over the actual healthier food option (Signorelli & Staples, 1997).
Therefore the constant exposure of unhealthy food advertisements during children’s television shows is a huge factor for why children have misconceptions about their food choices and why they request/crave these popularized unhealthy foods. Even the actual images of their favorite cartoon characters plastered on these food products in the grocery store add to the constant appeal and must have a desire for our impressionable kids to consume these unhealthy foods. The true overkill to not only craving these unhealthy foods is the actual mindless consumption of these foods that occur while watching TV.
Research has shown that watching TV has had a strong effect on the food intake patterns of adolescents (Olafsdottir et al., 2014). Not only does it have a strong effect, but a huge portion of calories that children consumed occur while watching TV (Matheson, Killen, Wang, Varady, & Robinson, 2004). This consumption is not a result of internal cues like hunger, but more so a distraction or trace of not paying attention to their eating habits due to external TV cues (Wansink, 2010). When children watched TV, natural eating habits are disrupted and typically lead to an increase in energy intake. Several laboratory studies have found that children consumed a significantly more amount of food when watching a continuous TV program versus when they weren’t watching TV at all (Temple et al., 2007).
Their cue to stop eating results from the end of a TV show versus the internal cue of being full. In a systematic review of 24 independent samples of children, the researcher concluded watching TV had a positive association with consumption of energy dense snacks, drinks, and fast foods, while also having an inversed association with the consumption of fruits and vegetables (Pearson & Biddle, 2011). In a cross-sectional study of 2,546 students, researchers discovered that on average 1 hour of watching TV equaled the consumption of about 130.6 calories. As well these adolescents watched between 19 and 25 hours of TV a week and only 3.5% of them generally refrained from eating a snack during this TV time (Van den Bulck & Van Mierlo, 2004). As a result, the mindless consumption of unhealthy food that occurs when children watch TV is yet another reason why watching TV is contributing to weight gain in adolescents, which can then even translate to their eating habits as adults. Thus, necessary steps need to be taken during these early developmental periods to reverse this negative impact that TV is having on our youth and allow them a foundation of healthy habits that they can grow and build upon into adulthood.
While it can be hard for parents to completely take the TV out of the lives of their children, a way we can improve children’s health in terms of obesity is to actually use TV to reverse its effects and promote healthy eating behaviors and active lifestyle choices for our youth. A major contribution should first aim to reduce and regulate the unhealthy food-based ads that are targeted to children. In 2006, the Council of Better Business Bureaus (BBB) and several leading food/beverage companies actually made strides toward this goal.
They launched the Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative (CFBAI) to commit to at least 50% of their targeted children’s ads to encourage/promote healthier “better for you” products (Peeler, Kolish, & Enright, 2009). While this is a great start and has resulted in successfully decreasing the amounts of calories, sugars, saturated fats, trans fat, and sodium in ten product categories (BBB, 2011) there are still many other companies not on board with this goal. It is necessary to have this standard across all food companies to truly ensure the same message is being relied to our youth at all times. If companies do not want to change the food products they offer, at the very least, it is necessary for these food items to not be seen or promoted in any children’s commercials or TV shows. This would truly allow children to thrive in a non-toxic environment and if we increase commercials to only show healthy food choices on TV would allow children to have the exposure/influence to choose good, healthy food options that would promote healthy bodies.
In removing these toxic advertisements from children’s shows another great solution would be to encourage physical activity while watching TV in a solution I like to call movement commercials. Whether it be funded by public service announcements or individual companies wanting to promote their cartoon characters, actors, or music this movement commercial would entice the viewers to take a break off the couch and move. Dance challenges have been a huge craze on social media and these movement commercials would mimic just that. An upbeat familiar song would play and children’s favorite TV characters would show up on screen to begin to teach them a series of moves to mimic.
Each commercial would feature only a few set of moves so that once viewed with repetition they can build a dance for the child to learn and perform with friends. In addition to dancing there can even be sports/fitness-related activities, approved to be able to do indoors, that would offer kids a challenge they must complete before the commercial is up. This can range from how many jumping jacks can they do before the commercial is over, to how many lunges can they complete, how many burpees can they do, or even how low can they squat before falling down. The main goal is to utilize familiar faces, feature exciting popular songs, and allow children to see their idols being silly, having fun, and being active. Having this exposure to take a break and get up and move would promote physical activity behavior outside the TV set and take away from the ability to indulge in mindless eating.
In retrospect, there are truly numerous and multifaceted factors that result to television’s role in contributing to the obesity epidemic in our youth. These factors all touch topics of psychological, social, environmental, and behavioral dispositions that create tendencies to not only increase sedentary behavior but caloric intake as well. It’s the impact of how all these factors come together as one when turning on the TV set creates the in-escaping truth of how unhealthy behaviors are promoted on TV. It’s time for us to step up and remove these negative exposures and instill positive outcomes for change. We should all want our youth to have the foundation to build a healthy life thus it is our job to make sure they have the tools to do so. Instilling a thirst for healthy foods, movement, and being active while watching TV can help to reverse the negative outcomes of this sedentary behavior. It may seem like a small change but with the reach and influence television has on children and even adults worldwide harnessing this reach for a positive outcome can only reap positive benefits. We can work on a means to control obesity, thus let’s begin by controlling what we show on TV.
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