How many commercials do your children watch per year? We know that TV watching has been positively associated with obesity in children. Obviously the more time spent in front of the TV, the less activity that children are engaged in. That’s a no-brainer. But what is the influence of the media, TV and advertising on what children actually consume, and how that is directly related to obesity. The nature of television viewing – that is how children watch and what they watch may be as important as the number of hours they watch.
Over the same period in which childhood obesity has increased, the number of ads children view for unhealthy foods has increased as well. In the 1970s children viewed an average of 20,000 TV commercials in a year. The most recent estimates are that children watch about 40,000 TV ads a year. Most of these ads are for food, primarily candy (32 percent), cereal (31 percent) and fast food (9 percent).
On Saturday mornings, the average child is exposed to one food commercial every five minutes. With a predominance of ads for junk foods and an absence of ads for fruits and vegetables it is no wonder that a child’s consumption reflects what they see. Television viewing also influences their parents’ purchasing habits and what children request at the grocery store. Researchers suggest that as many as three out of four requests were for products seen in TV ads.
In a randomized controlled trial of 2- to 6-year olds from a Head Start Program, one group of children watched a popular children’s cartoon with embedded commercials and the other group saw the same cartoon without commercials. When children were asked to identify their preferences from pairs of similar products, the children who saw the commercials were significantly more likely to choose the advertised products. Most children under the age of 6 cannot distinguish between programs content and commercials.
So, what can be done? This new year, resolve to not let your children be brainwashed about junk food. For decades pediatricians, dietitians, policymakers and child advocates have advocated for policy measures to protect children from advertising. Sweden, Norway and Finland do not permit commercial sponsorship of children’s programs. Aside from supporting policy in the United States to restrict advertising to children, parents can actively support restrictions of time children spend with the media. Limiting screen time to 1-2 hours of quality programming a day is recommended. Programs on PBS, the Nature Channel and others like this do not support advertising to children, so make a habit to watch these types of programs as a family.
Record programs without commercials. Spend an hour with your kids on Saturday morning and notice the commercials that aired. Discuss negative advertising with them. Ask thought-provoking questions like, “What do you like about that,” “Do you think it’s really as good as it looks in that ad” and “Do you think that’s a healthy choice?”
Most importantly, continue to model healthful behaviors to your children by your own purchasing and consumption behaviors.