Nutrition and Media Effects

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An Australian study by the Food Commission (1997) reported that more than one-half of nine-to ten-year-old children believe that Ronald McDonald knows best what is good for children to eat. Is television truly this persuasive, and can it shape the eating habits of the children of an entire nation? The answer appears to be yes. Poor diet is related to a number of problems in both health and quality of life. Obesity (the prevalence of which is on the rise among children) is the most obvious, but it is only one consequence of a national diet in which food is abundant, readily available, inexpensive, and promoted very heavily.

Television viewing appears to be an important factor in keeping both children and adults from being physically active. The influence of television is especially powerful in children. Many spend long hours watching television, a setting that promotes eating because children are inactive and are exposed to thousands of persuasive food advertisements. William Dietz (1990) noted that children spend more time watching television than doing any other activity except sleeping. Considering that children spend more time with television than in school, television has the potential for enormous influence.

Obesity results from an imbalance between the amount of energy (calories) consumed and the amount of energy used (through metabolism and physical activity). Weight gain occurs when a person eats more than the body burns. Television can affect this balance on both sides of the equation, by keeping children away from physical activity and by increasing food consumption. It is clear from research that children consume extra calories while watching television. The great majority of food advertisements aimed at children are for foods that are low in nutritional value.

Research has shown a positive association between television viewing and obesity. Although some studies have found only weak links between television viewing and obesity, many have found significant positive relationships. In 1985, Dietz and Steven L. Gortmaker published a study reporting that the amount of television viewed by children was directly related to measures of their body fat and that the rate of obesity in the children rose 2 percent for every hour of television viewed per day. The results of this research have been supported by numerous other studies that also indicate an increase of obesity associated with television viewing. Even those researchers who report finding weaker associations note that the health risks of obesity are of such magnitude that the topic merits further research. The message appears clear—more television, more obesity.

The content of what children watch is critical. A 1997 report by The Center for Media Education stated that children view one hour of advertising for every five hours of television watched and that the average child sees more than twenty thousand television commercials per year. Most young children do not understand that the purpose of advertising is to sell a product. Therefore, the line between programs and commercials is blurred as advertisers use popular television and movie characters to induce children to buy their products.

The majority of television commercials aimed at children are for food products, most of which are foods high in sugar, fat, and salt. A 1996 report by Consumers International (Dibb, 1996) on television food advertising directed at children indicated that food items represented the majority of products advertised to children in almost all of the thirteen countries studied. Candy, sugared breakfast cereals, and fast-food restaurants accounted for more than one-half of the food advertisements, with salty snacks, prepared foods, soft drinks, desserts, and dairy products also being widely advertised. Many advertising campaigns directly target children through promotional items in children's meals and tie-ins with popular cartoon and movie characters. Advertisers know that children control a large portion of family spending, either directly through purchases or indirectly through purchase requests, so they tailor their campaigns to capitalize on the children's market.

Studies have shown that the food choices of children are closely related to what they see on television. Television viewing in children has been linked to poor eating habits, increased caloric intake, supermarket requests for unhealthy foods, and misunderstanding of nutritional principles. Howard L. Taras and his colleagues (1989) conducted a study of mothers with children between three and eight years of age and found that food requests by children paralleled the frequency with which those foods were advertised on television. Weekly viewing hours correlated significantly with the food requests of children, purchases of advertised foods by parents, and the caloric intake of children.

Gerald Gorn and Marvin Goldberg (1982) showed through an experiment that children who watched candy commercials chose more candy than fruit as snacks, but children who saw either no commercials or public service announcements chose more fruit. Several studies have supported the finding that children who see advertisements for unhealthy foods make less-healthy food choices than children who view healthy-eating announcements. Thus, pronutritional public service announcements may be a largely untapped resource for using television to encourage healthier eating.

The Children's Television Act of 1990 limited the number of advertisements in children's programming on broadcast stations to 10.5 minutes per hour on weekends and 12 minutes per hour on weekdays. In 1996, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) expanded the Children's Television Act, requiring broadcast stations to air at least three hours of programming designed to educate and inform children between two and sixteen years of age. Although the number of so-called educational and informational programs on broadcast stations appears to have increased, the positive effect of these programs remains to be demonstrated.

Television has a powerful influence on children, and that power can be used responsibly to promote healthy lifestyles. Advocacy groups have called for increased pronutritional public service announcements, which have been shown to have a positive effect on healthy food choices, and for greater restrictions on the quantity and content of advertising directed at children. The U.S. government has shown interest in encouraging children to become more physically active with initiatives such as the inception in the 1990s of an annual National TV Turnoff Week. Research has explored the role that parents can play by discussing the content of programs and advertisements with children and by making careful purchasing decisions.

The prevalence of obesity among adults and children has caused observers to highlight the need for intervention on an environmental level. Television is an appealing target area for this type of intervention because it provides opportunities for change on both sides of the obesity equation.

See also:Advertising Effects; Body Image, Media Effect on; Children and Advertising; Parental Mediation of Media Effects; Television, Educational.


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Katherine Battle Horgen

Kelly D. Brownell