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The Role of Media in Child Obesity



The Kaiser Family Foundation released a report today reviewing more than 40 studies on the role of media in the nation's dramatically increasing rates of childhood obesity. The report concludes that the majority of scientific research indicates that children who spend the most time with media are more likely to be overweight.

Contrary to common assumptions, however, most research reviewed for this report does not find that children's media use displaces more vigorous physical activities. Therefore, the research indicates that there may be other factors related to children's media use that are contributing to weight gain. In particular, children's exposure to billions of dollars worth of food advertising and marketing in the media may be a key mechanism through which media contributes to childhood obesity.

The report cites studies that show that the typical child sees about 40,000 ads a year on TV, and that the majority of ads targeted to kids are for candy, cereal, soda and fast food. Furthermore, many of the advertising and marketing campaigns enlist children's favorite TV and movie characters. The report also cites research indicating that exposure to food advertising affects children's food choices and requests for products in the supermarket.

In addition, the report also highlights ways media can play a positive role in helping to reduce childhood obesity, through programs that encourage children to be active and help teach good nutrition, through public education campaigns aimed at children and parents, and by using popular media characters to promote healthier food options to children.

"The health implications of childhood obesity are staggering," says Vicky Rideout, Vice President and Director of the Kaiser Family Foundation's Program for the Study of Entertainment Media and Health. "While media is only one of many factors that appear to be affecting childhood obesity, it's an important piece of the puzzle."

The report, "The Role of Media in Childhood Obesity," brings together research from a variety of disciplines for the first time in a document that looks exclusively at the role of media in contributing to and potentially helping to reduce rates of childhood obesity. It was presented to and discussed by a panel of experts representing entertainment media, child health advocacy, academia, and the food industry.

Key Findings:

The majority of research finds a link between the amount of time children spend watching TV and their body weight. While there have been several studies that do not find such a relationship, those have primarily been regional studies conducted among smaller demographic subgroups.

Interventions that reduce children's media time result in weight loss. Experimental interventions indicate that there is an opportunity to reduce children's body weight by curbing the time they spend with media.

Most research indicates that time spent with media does not displace time spent in physical activities. While logic suggests that kids who spend a lot of time with media spend less time in more active behaviors, a review of the research indicates that the evidence for this relationship is surprisingly weak. Children who watch less TV may be replacing TV time with other relatively sedentary activities such as reading books, talking on the phone, or playing board games instead.

Many studies indicate that children's exposure to food advertising and marketing may be influencing their food choices. Content studies document that children are exposed to a vast number of TV ads for food products such as sodas, cereal, candy, and fast food. Other research suggests that exposure to food commercials influences children's preferences and food requests, and that ads can also contribute to confusion among children about the relative health benefits of certain foods.

Policy Options: Researchers have noted that while there are many contributing factors to childhood obesity, media use may provide promising opportunities to positively affect the problem. Leading policy options promoted by public health experts include: reduce or regulate food ads targeted to children, expand public education campaigns to promote healthy eating and exercise, incorporate messages about healthy eating into TV storylines, and support interventions to reduce the time children spend with media.

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, the increase in childhood obesity represents an "unprecedented burden" on children's health. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), report that since 1980 the proportion of overweight children ages 6 to 11 has more than doubled, and the rate for adolescents has tripled. Today about 10% of 2- to 5-year-olds and 15% of 6- to 9-year-olds are overweight. Taking into consideration the proportion who are "at risk" of being overweight, the current percentages double to 20% for children ages 2-5 and 30% for kids ages 6-19. Among children of color, the rates are even higher: 4 in 10 Mexican American and African American youth ages 6 to 19 are considered overweight or at risk of being overweight.

The report is available online at: http://www.kff.org/entmedia/entmedia022404pkg.cfm

The Kaiser Family Foundation is a non-profit, private operating foundation dedicated to providing information and analysis on health care issues to policymakers, the media, the health care community, and the general public. The Foundation is not associated with Kaiser Permanente or Kaiser Industries.