Are Sitcoms or Commercials Making Your Kids Fat?

by Jo-Ann Heslin, MA, RD, CDN on July 6, 2011 · 0 comments

Is it TV or the food commercials on TV that’s behind the alarming rate of childhood obesity in the U.S.? The debate has been going on since the 1970’s.

TV watching by its very nature is inactivity. Some research has even suggested that children who watch a great deal of TV fall into a trance-like stupor and their metabolism slows down, which results in their burning even fewer calories. Couple the hours in front of the TV with computer time and our children are almost born as couch potatoes.

A survey done by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that 25% of children under the age of 2 have a TV in their bedroom, even though The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no TV at all, including DVDs and videos, for this age group. Popping in a Dora the Explorer tape for a few minutes of peace can be irresistible, but using the TV as a babysitter can have far-reaching consequences.

Watching TV has a role in the process called nutrition socialization. It shows us information about food-related knowledge – what people normally eat and drink, what are their attitudes about foods, and what behaviors are appropriate and not appropriate regarding food. We know from research that sitcom actors routinely eat and drink, yet very few are overweight. In fact, most are quite thin.

Children under the age of 6 are naïve and vulnerable consumers. They believe what they see. They can’t distinguish between programming and ads. And children don’t understand that an ad is created to make them want a product. They simply love SpongeBob SquarePants and Dora the Explorer.

Young children see commercials as mini-stories between parts of a program. They believe commercial claims and don’t have the language development to understand disclaimers. They have no concept of a “balanced” meal. Preschoolers have almost no knowledge of nutrition concepts or food values. To them good food simply tastes good.

Yet half of the thousands of ads kids view yearly are for food, and 85% of those are for less than optimal choices. It’s no wonder kids have fits in the supermarket when parents refuse to buy sweetened cereal, soda, cookies and snacks. Research has shown that it only takes 2 exposures to food commercials to influence a preschooler’s preference for a specific food. What they saw on TV this morning they want in the shopping cart this afternoon.

There are positive strategies that parents can use. Don’t let kids eat meals in front of the TV. Each meal eaten in front of the TV adds up to 1 hour of overall daily viewing. According to research, children from families who watch a lot of TV eat more snacks foods and caffeine-containing soda, and fewer fruits and vegetables.

The simplest and hardest thing to do is to control the amount of time your children watch TV or use the computer. As a parent, I know from experience that this is a tough chore and sets up an on-going battle with more skirmishes than anyone wants to endure. But, kids were meant to move. TV promotes sitting. Turn off the TV regularly, declare no-TV days, take a walk, play catch, sign kids up for a bowling league or soccer team. Be active yourself and don’t spend hours in front of the TV. Kids learn by example – be a good one.

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