Obesity and the Media

Children are increasingly becoming overweight and less physically active, to the point that childhood obesity is a global epidemic. Media use — including time spent watching television, playing video games and using a computer — has been identified as one of the contributing factors for a number of reasons, including the following:

  • There is considerable advertising and promotion of high-sugar, high-fat foods during children's programming.
  • Media use is displacing physical activity as children spend more and more time watching television and playing video games and less time being physically active.

Today's children are inundated with media competing for their attention. Even with all of these choices, television continues to dominate their free time. Although the relationships between television, eating habits, nutrition and physical activity are complex, the recent rise in childhood obesity has been linked in part to time spent watching television.

Media Use

American youth devote more time to media than to any other waking activity, with the average child spending a third of each day exposed to media. In 1999 a study by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that the average child between the ages of 8 and 18 spent 6 hours and 43 minutes each day with media — more time than they spent in school, with parents or involved in any activity other than sleep. Television dominates the free time of children and reduces their involvement in other activities.

Television Teaching About Food

In addition to their parents, American children are exposed to numerous verbal and non-verbal messages about food from peers and the media, with television — and advertising in particular — being the largest single media source of these messages. Most prevalent is advertising for branded foods, such as cereal, juice, cookies, chips and other snack foods, in addition to commercials for fast-food restaurants.

The majority of commercials during programs aimed at children are for unhealthy high-fat, high-sugar or high-salt foods with little nutritional value. These prominently advertised foods are consumed in greater quantities than healthier foods, like fruits and vegetables, which are rarely advertised. In addition, the ads focus on the value of the foods as coming from the satisfaction of emotional rather than health needs.

Inactivity

The concept of displacement suggests that when one form of media is used in abundance, other activities get displaced. These activities include more active behaviors, such as sports, playing outside and riding a bicycle. Declining physical activity levels of children at school and at home is increasingly being recognized as one of the primary factors causing children to be overweight.

In addition, participation in physical education classes has declined and children are spending less time playing outdoors because of safety concerns, lack of supervised recreational programs and scarcity of playgrounds.

Increasing children's activity levels is a crucial way to help prevent children from becoming overweight. It is important that children get interested and involved in being active at an early age. These activities need to be fun, sustainable and appropriate for the child's age and development. See Exercise Tips from the WATCH Clinic for ideas.

In addition to physical activities, many non-physical activities are better for children's health than watching television. Even non-physical activities, such as music lessons, art classes and reading have been found to be better than watching television when it comes to reducing the chance that a child will become obese.

 

Reviewed by health care specialists at UCSF Benioff Children's Hospital.

This information is for educational purposes only and is not intended to replace the advice of your doctor or health care provider. We encourage you to discuss with your doctor any questions or concerns you may have.