Fat Kids: What's Really to Blame?

A new study shows that children's exposure to food ads and marketing while watching TV -- and not inactivity as a result of watching TV -- may be to blame for a growing number of plumped-up kids.

February 24 -- If your kid spends a lot of time in front of the television, she's more likely to be overweight. But the reason why may surprise you.

While logic suggest that kids who spend a lot of time watching TV spend less time in more active, fat-burning behaviors, a report released today by the Kaiser Family Foundation indicates the evidence for this relationship is surprisingly weak. The report says part of the reason for this may be that children who watch less TV are replacing TV time with other sedentary activities like reading books and playing board games.

So then, what is to blame for the link between the amount of time children spend watching TV, and their body weight? Exposure to billions of dollars worth of food advertising and marketing may play a key role in the epidemic of childhood obesity, the report concludes.

The report, The Role of Media in Childhood Obesity, brings together research from more than 40 studies on the role of media in the nation's increasing rates of childhood obesity.

The report cites studies that show a typical child sees about 40,000 ads a year on TV, and the majority of the ones targeted to them are selling soda, fast food, cereal and candy. And these ads are using popular children's characters -- from SpongeBob Cheez-Its to Teletubbies Happy Meals -- to do it.

"The health implications of childhood obesity are staggering," says Vicky Rideout, Vice President and Director of the Kaiser Family Foundation's Program for the Study of Entertainment Media and Health. "While media is only one of many factors that appear to be affecting childhood obesity, it's an important piece of the puzzle."

Some good news is revealed in the report, too. Findings show that media can play a positive role in helping to reduce childhood obesity through programs that encourage kids to be active and help teach good nutrition, through public education campaigns aimed at children and parents, and by using popular characters to promote healthier food options to children.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report that about 10% of 2- to 5-year-olds are overweight, and that since 1980, the proportion of overweight children ages 6 to 11 has more than doubled. The American Academy of Pediatrics reportedly says the increase in childhood obesity represents an "unprecedented burden" on children's health.

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