Childhood Obesity: Is total TV watching time the problem, or is it the commercials?

By , SparkPeople Blogger
It’s been documented for quite a while that there’s a strong link between TV watching and obesity in children. The assumption has usually been that the time a child spends watching TV reduces the time spent on physical activity, but this new research indicates things may not be this simple.

When researchers from UCLA recently studied the TV and video viewing activities of 2000 children, they found that there was no association at all between viewing time and obesity for those children who watched videos or other commercial-free programs. But that picture changed when children were watching programs that included commercials. Researchers found that the more commercials the child was exposed to, the more likely it was that the child would be obese. This was especially true for children under 7.

This study wasn’t able to document how much of the advertising watched by the children was specifically food advertising, or exactly how food commercials influenced eating habits or weight. Obviously, younger children don’t usually do their own grocery shopping or meal planning—but they can make grocery shopping and healthy family meals pretty contentious and difficult when they’ve got their minds set on the products they see on TV, especially after they get a taste of them. Sometimes it can feel like the only way to get them to eat anything at all is to let them have the fast food or sugary food they want.

Recognizing the power of advertising to influence the health, eating habits and weight of young children, the national Better Business Bureau recently established a program aimed at getting major food producers to adopt appropriate guidelines for advertising their products to children. The program urges companies to establish voluntary nutritional standards for products that can be advertised directly to children under 12, and monitors how well companies implement and abide by these standards. You can check out these guidelines and performance results at the BBB’s website.

What do you think about this? Do you believe that food commercials play an important role in childhood obesity? If you have young kids, do you restrict their commercial-viewing time?

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I am VERY susceptible to "suggestion". From the time I could read The Famous Five books, I would crave "lashings of ginger beer" About 20 years ago, we ended cable TV in our house. I only watch shows on Netflix or buy them on video. I got in trouble with the kids teachers because my kids didn't "know what was going on in the world". However, because they weren't bombarded by commercials, they made better choices in their "wants". I also made better choices, financially, nutritionally and environmentally. Now if only I didn't crave food that is being talked about when I'm reading a book and dinner is being described. Report
BOTH! It's not an either / or thing! As my latest blog (among other posts) will attest: I am rabidly opposed to corporate messages sent to the masses via commercials...children and adults alike! The Revolution Will Not Be Televised: it is up to US what we buy, eat, wear, etc. The challenge is to be as critical as possible of all the media messages that inundate us every day!

Having It Your Way does NOT have to mean downing bazillions of calories!

Soapbox Dismount...! :-)

Don Report
Whether they see commercials or not doesn't make much difference, it's the parents/grandparents/etc that give in to their child's demands for them to go buy the sugar filled food they saw the advertisement for. It's the parent's fault for NOT saying "Okay, that's enough TV for right now, go outside and play for a little while and you can watch again when the sun goes down, as long as you've done all your homework." It's also the parent's responsibility to not have unhealthy food readily within the reach of their children. Report
I hope they didn't spend too much time or money on this study. Really, haven't we known for years and years that inactivity (watching tv) and commercials both have a part in obesity? And I agree, children can crave foods, but they usually can't buy them. Report
We don't have cable, but when the stations switched to digital, we got our first kids station with commercials. So far, not seeing the weight gain, or any big changes in activity level, but the difference in the wantyness (my word) from my 8-year-old was dramatic. I'm always hearing about how he wants this or that toy, he wanted me to buy the shamwow and got me a snuggi for my birthday (sigh).

So, we have a rule in our house--we don't buy anything we've seen advertised on kid TV. Exceptions made for toilet paper and other necessities and anything that the kids want to spend their own money on. This has led to some good discussions about the ways companies try to imply more than they can actually claim and what really makes us want things that we see advertised. Come to think of it, these are good considerations for making food choices too, so maybe the correlation comes from an increase in impulsive decision making?

Yay Noggin/NickJr. No commercials!! Report
I've been monitoring my own eating habits with television watching. I have to agree on this, there is something about the commercials. I prefer to watch a movie on television non-stop without the commercials. I felt the less need to overeat. Report
Parent have the final say, but some allow their child to rule the roost. Parents need to start from the beginning and show by example the right foods to eat. Report
I TOTALLY believe it's the parents' responsibility. But I have definitely seen the power of advertising on the little ones first hand.

I usually try to limit my daughter's viewing to PBS or NickJR, neither of which has commercials. But sometimes she wants to watch a show that's on another Nick channel. At the end of the show, she comes away singing the ChuckECheese commercial! Nothing about the show itself!

I watched lots of commercials and I didn't buy JUNK cereal or any of that other stuff, so that is just the PARENTS fault. The kid can't buy any of that. Report
I never thought about how the commercials can affect my children's weight and let alone cravings. We have twin girls who are 5. They are becoming little picky eaters but my husband and I have refuse to budge on our family meal. What ever we have, we all have. We all try it or lump. If our girls refuse they get nothing else. If they do not eat at least half of their food, no desert or candy. I miss the days in which they would eat whatever we put in front of them and hope that by my husband and I being good role models our girls will eat healthy and exercise as they get older. Report
I think it is too easy to blame other people/situations for weight problems. Seriously, seven-year-olds! What are they doing? Running to their groceries store to purchase the junk being offered. If a child is eating a high calorie breakfast if is only because the parent/s allow it. If your child begs you to purchase a hit of CRACK or a pack of cigarettes, you are not going to do it, why surrender to an unhealthy food. Put the blame where it belongs if you care to resolve the issue. Report
Obesity comes from an imbalance between caloric energy intake (eating) and energy output (physical activity). You ask the question of whether it is the total time watching television or the commercials that are contributing to the obesity epidemic, when in fact it is how we spend our time and our food dollars that make the difference. Television is designed to entertain us and all too often we feel that we simply cannot miss that favorite show. The commercials are intentionally designed to "sell" us products and children are especially suseptible to their favorite cartoon characters telling them that they should want to eat the product being promoted. When it comes down to the bottom line, life is full of choices and we either choose to watch television or not; we choose what foods are brought into the home and consumed. As parents, we make these choices for our children. All too often, parents do not tell their children "no" or help them to learn to make sound choices that will affect their health for the rest of their lives. I work in healthcare and it is truly sad to see the number of obese adults coming in for services and knowing that this is the fate facing so many of our children today if there are not interventions. For the first time in history, today's children are facing a shorter life span than their ancestors. Report
I don't think there is any one cause for childhood obesity.

I certainly wouldn't blame commercials or fast foods eateries.
Turn the TV off; don't drive them to McDonalds; serve them wholesome foods. Report
I think commercials definitely have an effect on everyone, kids included. However, I think TV time has a more direct correlation with child obesity than the commercials would because it doesn't matter what is on those commercials, kids are going to eat healthy if their parents only allow healthy foods in the home. Report
I think the commercials affect us all, even when we know better. I've found myself getting hungry when I see tempting foods presented as a part of a commercial campaign by a noted weight loss company that is pretending to offer help you combat hunger, while tempting you to be hungry at the same time.

I love my DVR. I've gotten sick of all those commercials trying to manipulate me. Best to avoid them or just turn off the TV. Report
I think tv commercials really do effect my kids. They wouldn't know that certain junk foods exsisted if it wasn't for commercials, so of course they wouldn't ask for them if they hadn't. I try to talk to them about advertising, and about how the particular food isn't good for them. Report
I'm glad to see more complete research going into things like this. So many problems (health related and most other problems in the world) are blamed on one thing when there are ALWAYS more factors involved than we think. While I think parents these days don't take the reigns as much as they should and did when I was younger, for the most part I think parents make the majority of choices about what their kids eat. So it seems like commercials that the parents watch would have a greater impact than the commercials kids watch. Report
Obviously, commercials aren't the sole reason for childhood obesity, but I can definitely see how they play a role. When my 4yo watches Nick Jr (used to be Noggin) which has NO commercials, he asks for a lot less. When he watches Nick (which has a TON of commercials), all he wants to talk about are the things he wants. Some of what he wants are toys but some of it is food, too. Report
The tv and commercials don't help but not getting the children to do some sort of physical activity outdoors is more to blame. Report
We have to take responsibility and not blame other sources. Report
Despite this, we can NOT blame television for obesity - childhood or otherwise. This is just another result of people who CHOOSE to not be responsible for themselves, people who choose to NOT take responsibility for their own action or inaction. Enough of the blame game. Can tv shows influence people - yes it can. However, it is up to us as adults to control what we watch and what we eat. It is up to parents to guide their children. I watched a ton of tv as a child but was not fat. I don't blame the food industry either - no one is forcing us to eat certain foods. WE CHOOSE to eat them, or NOT eat them. Report
I believe we are ALL victims of the American "FOOD" industry run amok!!! And the industries have been victimizing all of us, starting at very young ages, since they gained access via TV commercials back in the '40s and '50s. We've all been sold a bill of "goods" that isn't good at all. Our "food" is full of fat and sugar and salt, and the obesity epidemic AT ALL AGES is the result. They're killing us with their ads, starting in childhood. It's a shameful disgrace!!! Report
"Childhood Obesity: Is total TV watching time the problem, or is it the commercials? "

So, now, the blame is on watching TV or commercials? Much of the obesity problem is caused by the foods that are eaten. I believe poor nutrition is the problem. We have the food industry altering the food we eat it is getting more and more difficult to find food, "real food", on the grocery store shelves. If children are obese, then the problem is most likely the parents because they are the ones responsible for the children's food and exercise.
Just my opinion.
Childern today live a more sedementary and structured life style. In the class room I see where this is hurting them. I see more heavy childern, even the thin ones do not have the cordination, strength, or endurance that our childern had. Nor do they develope problem solving skills needed for daily life.
They spend way to much time watching tv or playing video games. When they are involved in some activity or sport, they have someone telling them what to do. We have truley lost some life training by not letting childern do free play where they become inventive, use their imaginations, and develope problem solving skills. tEven he class books incourage dependance on others for information.
My childern are all grown two of the three have families of their own, so it is up to you who have childern at home. Let them play more, look up their definitions, do their own research, limit their indoor activitites. I understand this is hard with everyones scheldues, neighborhoods, ect. You can do this!! Sit with your spouse and work it out, make it a priorty. They will complain at first, but you will see a positive chang in your childern.

"Voluntary nutritional standards" pretty much says it all, doesn't it? I suspect the BBB's initiative will be used as a springboard for more advertising, this time driven by "healthier for you" additives.

Yeah, call me a cynic.
TV is more of a hinderance to a childs social skill and veiws of reality more than anything else. The national assosiation of pediactrics says no TV before age to for healthy children. Thats why programs like baby einstein have been recalled. They cause massive damge to the developing child. Report
We limit TV because we DON'T have cable. We only have 5 channels and 2 of them are public TV and one is a weather station. We get very limited TV and we don't have it on all the time! My son does play computer games and we limit that time too! He goes outside and uses his great imagination! Report
Yes children are influenced by commercials, but only as much as we allow them to be. We hold the wallets. We also control the televisions and computers when we're at home. Let's get the kids out of the house and playing with their friends. Organized sports are ok, but free play time is even better. Report
When my son was young, he had some medical problems that required him to remain motionless for up to 4 weeks following his surgeries. Needless to say he watched many videos. I was concerned because I had read that children should be exposed to no more than 2 hours of tv per day. Well, the commercial free tv and the videos had no impact on him at all. As soon as he was up and about, he wanted nothing to do with tv.
Fast forward 4 years- he starts to watch Nick and Disney and Cartoon Network. Once he hit those stations, he wanted everything in the commercials. As a matter of fact, he likes the commercials better than the shows.
I totally agree with this study. Report
I don't think tv is the major blame but one of the causes. I also think fast food restaurants on every corner, junk food, and not playing outside factors in as well.
Far back in the last century, I went to work for John McDonald - one of the brothers who founded McDonald's in California and before they sold the franchising rights to Ray Kroc. The brothers never did use any commercials because there were only about a dozen in the entire Las Angeles area.

Within 20 years, Ray Kroc had franchised thousands of these money makers and was using national coverage to draw children and to promise mom and dad that the same quality they had at their local McDonald's was available from coast to coast (Ray Kroc was better than any drill sergeant I ever encountered, because if a franchise wasn't living up to McDonald standards, they had 90 days to get in shape or the company revoked the franchise and brought in a special team to run the operation. Only AFTER every employee from the previous franchisee had rotated out was the franchise put up for re-sale).

The Ronald McDonald ads covered every station on Saturdays that had children's shows and the ads were a blatant plea to the kids to bring mommy and daddy to Mickey D's.

The ads at night were much more sophisticated and touted consistency of product and cleanliness (never actual saying 'this is the place for clean bathrooms', but close).

If you were on a trip away from your home area and had little children with you and asked, "Where should we eat lunch?" - the answer from the children was a loud "McDonald's!" And softly, putting her vote in behind the children's was moms choice - "Oh, they always have such clean bathrooms". Dad never knew what hit him.

It's now been three generations since I worked at one of the original McDonald's (now a National Historic Landmark in Downey, CA).

The McDonald's plan is working better and better, despite the huge increase in competition.

It's the ads! Report
I think that inactivity is the culprit, not TV commercials. Report
I agree with you. I have sold my TV
and now I am Freeeeeeeeeeeeee! Report
Yes, commercial influence children and alot of adults. If we sometimes give in to those food commercial, you know the children want everthing they see advertised. That's good marketing.

My children are grown now. But, when they were growing up I did limit the TV. However, they still managed to see what the latest was. McDonald's didn't need commercials.. they just saw Ronald McDonald (the clown) and playground, then wanted to go. Report
I think that the commercials have a huge influence on children, however they are not the ones with the PURCHASE POWER. As parents it is our responsibility to teach them that television and junk food in moderation are fine...but keeping active is most important for their health. There is no reason why we should neglect teaching them how to live a healthy lifestyle and that they do not need everything the television says they HAVE TO HAVE. Report
my children have never watched a television commercial in our home, and they are both a very healthy weight. Go figure. Report
TV absolutely does influence us in many ways - food - actions - language ~~~ the good the bad and the ugly lol! Report
We all did it as kids? Beg for Mom to buy what we saw on TV, so yes- I believe it contributes to it. But even more involvement of Parents with their Children's activities overall is what's truly needed. Most Parents these day's have latch key kids that are "banned" from going outside during the week in fear of being caught leaving their children home alone. So what does a kid have to do besides watch TV or spend time on the Internet, eating and guzling sodas or energy drinks? At best that's what Parents hope their children are up to without their supervision.

With the Economy the way it is fewer Parents are paying fees for Child Care and Sport activities that mean spending more money they just don't have and resorting to leaving their children unattended. Report
Ibelieve advertising has a big influence on our eating habits. We see healthy thin looking people eating something and it looks so GOOD then when we eat it we are fat unhealthy and it is too much sugar and we feel BAD. But the comercial said we wouldn't feel this way. mmm do believe what you see on comercials. Report
It is definitely a factor worth thinking about for us as parents. :) Report
I have never really thought about it. I do not have cable/satellite in my home. We do have tv's with vcr/dvd players and some video games, the time given to those items are limited. While I am overweight (lifelong bad habits and no one teaching me better) my son is active and thin. He also does well and school and loves to learn, read, write, and more. I feel tv distracts to much from life and from family. Also in these hard ecomonic times i feel that it is much more financially sound to just forgo television and use your brains. Report
While I do believe that watching too much TV contributes to childhood (as well as adult) obesity problems, we can't heap the blame entirely on the media or food industry.

Parents have control of the television. They can turn off the TV any time they want. the problem is that parents have become so busy, that the TV has become the baby sitter in many households. My personal opinion is that parents should encourage their children to get away from the TV, the video games and the computer. They should encourage their children to read.

This is why I LOVE the Harry Potter books ! A new Harry Potter book meant that child was reading and well as socializing with other kids reading that book. No child or adult should sit infront of the TV or computer all day. get out, take a walk, find ways that improve your mind.

I enjoy watching TV as much as the next person, but I also read regularly. I do things that stimulate my mind. that's what kids need. they need something that stimulates their minds and grows brain cells, not fat cells.

I do think limiting the amount of TV will make a difference.
I recently cancelled my cable service and bought a Roku box...I can download all kinds of shows..documentataries, etc. and watch them at my leisure with no commercials. I now don't get sucked into watching too much know how that sit just for a minute to unwind..and hours later you're still there and upset because you wasted your evening. Try'll like it. I bought my Roku on Amazon and am saving $90 a month. Woo hoo! Report
MY kids could have been in this study! Not having "paid" tv my kids are limited to PBS and DVD's for their television watching. Our ex-babysitter (who did have cable) used to tell us that the kids would be playing while the tv was on but everything would stop when the commercials came on. As they got older and they would go to friends houses they would start asking for certain (BAD) foods. I would buy if for them every once in awhile but not on a regular basis. So when I got on my journey to eating better and really looking at what my kids were eating, I realized it could have been a lot worse! Now to get my mother to understand that "fruit" chewy snacks have NO fruit in them!!!
This study makes me so glad I made the decision I did to limit my children's exposure to commercials early on. I've tried to limit my children's tv time, but more importantly I limited their exposure to commercials advertising to children (so no Nickelodeon even if many of their educational shows are quite good). While I limited their exposure to children's advertising, my husband's sports obsession meant they were exposed to plenty of adult advertising. It's not an accident that one of the first signs my son recognized (when he was only 2 years old) was BudLight--a brand that we never consumed at home but which is ubiquitous in sports advertising. Given my goal to limit my children's exposure to commercial messages, I've realized how difficult it is. Report
I truly believe that commercials have something to do with it. Take sugary cereals, for example. I never buy these, but whenever my kids come to the grocery store with me, it's always a battle in the cereal aisle because whatever it is they "have to" have is always something they've seen repeatedly advertised during their TV shows. That's why I love PBS Kids and Nick Jr (formerly Noggin) -- no commercials! Report
Thanks for sharing. Report
I guess I had never thought about the commercials being the big influence but my 2 granddaughters ( and 2) always find something that they have to have. My guess is that they saw it on TV. Thanks for writing this - I have shared it with their Mom's. Report
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