Feb. 25--It's well established that children who watch hours of television every day are more likely to be obese. But yesterday researchers indicated a possible reason why: 40,000 advertisements a year are reaching the average child, persuading children to eat more candy, cereal, soda, and fast food.
Physicians, researchers, and media specialists have long assumed that television-watching children are more likely to be overweight because they spend their free time sitting, rather than burning calories by playing outdoors. But researchers at the Kaiser Family Foundation reviewed 40 published research studies on childhood obesity and found that most did not support that conclusion. Instead, the research suggested that a more important factor contributing to childhood obesity may be billions of dollars' worth of food advertising.
Many of the marketing campaigns enlist popular children's TV and movie characters to promote products like SpongeBob Cheez-Its, Scooby-Doo cereals, and Teletubbies Happy Meals. The ads are not limited to television. Advertisers are increasingly using Internet games to reach children, said Kaiser researcher Vicky Rideout. On Hershey's KidzTown.com, children can play a "Twizzlers Slider" puzzle, while on Nabiscoworld.com, a mini-golf game challenges them to sink a tiny green ball into a hole while avoiding a rolling Ritz bits sandwich.
"There are hundreds of these," said Rideout, director of the Program for the Study of Entertainment Media and Health at Kaiser, a nonprofit California-based research foundation. "Nabiscoworld.com has attracted 800,000 kids a month. Kids spend 12 minutes per game on these sites; that's a really long ad."
In one 2001 study Kaiser cited, researchers compared two groups of 2- to 6-year-olds enrolled in a Head Start program; one group watched cartoons sprinkled with commercials, the other viewed cartoons only. Asked to identify their preferences from pairs of similar products, children who saw the commercials were significantly more likely to choose advertised products.
Dr. David Ludwig, director of the obesity program at Children's Hospital in Boston, said that the research published so far suggests ads are altering children's eating habits, but it's not conclusive. Although more studies are needed, he said, one statistic in particular drives home the point that advertising may have far more impact than exercise: If a child goes to a McDonald's restaurant twice a week and orders a super-size meal, he will need to walk 50 miles to work off those calories.
More than 2,500 children a year visit the Children's Hospital obesity program, and staff try to negotiate with patients to watch less television. If they watch two hours daily, they try to get them to watch half of that.
"We don't want our nutritional education program to be eroded," Ludwig said. "We can spend three hours a month with a kid. Fast-food companies spend hundreds of hours a month." While researchers have not proved a definite connection, the number of ads children see has grown at the same time obesity has skyrocketed. In the late 1970s, children watched about 20,000 ads a year, half the number they do today, researchers found. At the same time, the percent of obese children and teenagers has climbed to more than 15 percent from about 5 percent.
William MacLeod, an attorney for Grocery Manufacturers of America, an industry trade group, said consumers should not jump to conclusions about the dangers of advertising. He said food makers are introducing dozens of low-fat products that come in smaller portions.
"There is one way to get these on the kitchen tables of Americans, and that's for people to find out about them," he said. "And there's only one way for people to find out about them, and that's advertising."
As consumers demand more nutritional products, he said, food makers will gradually shift advertising to these types of products. Meanwhile, advertisers comply with network guidelines for food ads aimed at children, including presenting cereal as part of a balanced breakfast that includes milk, juice, and toast, MacLeod said.
"But we need to remember kids need to have fun and enjoy what they're eating too," MacLeod said.
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