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The Screen Factor

Current research suggests that kids spend as much as six hours per day in front of some type of screen. Can such excess be linked to obesity?

The television has been with us for nearly 60 years, and for nearly as long its impact has been the subject of endless scrutiny. As a result, we now know more about the emotional, physiological and cognitive development of children – those who do watch television, and those who don’t. But recent and current research is unpacking even more data about how screen time could contribute to obesity.

The focus today is on advertising. Research into advertising – particularly television advertising – has revealed correlations between what children are watching in those fragmented slips of time between regular programs, and both their preferences for and perceptions of food.

According to a 2010 global television study, Canadian children are exposed to an average of six food advertisements per hour, with just over 80 per cent of these advertisements being for “noncore” food – products that are relatively high in undesirable nutrients such as salt, fat or sugar. During children’s peak viewing times, as much as 60 per cent of the advertising is focused specifically on fast food, unhealthy breakfast cereals and snack food. 

“One of the disturbing things we found in the international study was that Alberta had the second highest rate of food and beverage ads – seven per hour,” notes Dr. Kim Raine, Professor in the School of Public Health at the University of Alberta and one of the authors of the global study.  “We then analyzed the nutritional content of a ‘TV diet’, a diet consisting of only those foods advertised. The sugar and salt content were much higher than recommendations to protect health. Fat was not as high as expected, although still would not be considered a “healthy” level. The fat calories were probably diluted by the high sugar content of the diet.”

The fact that such advertising can be directly related to children’s preferences and to purchasing decisions in the grocery store is cause for concern, especially in terms of both short- and long-term health.

“There is a correlation between the increasing amounts of exposure to food advertising and increasing levels of overweight and obese children,” explains Raine. “Kids today start watching television as young as five months of age. Back in the 1970s, it was four years of age. This is a huge difference. Kids are growing up in a TV culture, and exposure to advertising and marketing is a part of that.”

Another 2010 study, which looked at associations between television content and children’s weight, found that while television may be a sedentary activity, it could not be directly linked with obesity in kids. Rather, by looking at programming on commercial television, educational (non-commercial) television and video/DVD against children’s viewing habits, level of exercise and BMI, researchers were able to conclude that that relationship between children’s obesity and television viewing could be associated with obesogenic food advertisements.

To assess this within the Canadian context, Dr. Monique Potvin Kent,  a researcher at the Institute of Population Health at the University of Ottawa, recently published a study in the International Journal of Pediatric Obesity that compares the food advertisement exposure of  English and French-speaking children in Quebec and Ontario. In Quebec, the Consumer Protection Act bans the commercial advertising of products that are directed to children when children consist of 15% of the audience.  Potvin Kent’s results showed that child-specific advertising for such products as “fun foods” or those endorsed by promotional characters were far less prevalent in the preferred television viewing of French Quebec children.  In particular, candy, snack foods and breakfast cereals were seen less often by French Quebec children. 

However, the study showed that the Consumer Protection Act has some serious limitations.

“English Quebec kids were not protected at all,” says Potvin Kent. “In fact, they were exposed to as much targeted food advertising as their Ontario counterparts. English-speaking Quebec children are watching TV programming that comes from outside of Quebec where the ad ban does not apply. It’s known as the “leaky border” effect in television advertising.”

Further, Quebec’s Consumer Protection Act was written in 1978 to address concerns that were prevalent during that time – it was not designed to tackle the current day obesity epidemic. “We know that obesity rates in Quebec are lower [than the national average] and that Quebec kids are eating more fruits and vegetables,” says Potvin Kent. “You can’t draw a causative link between the lower incidence of targeted food advertising in Quebec and the lower levels of obesity – there are simply too many other factors that contribute to obesity. The high rates of food and beverage advertising on television in both Ontario and Quebec does bolster calls for a national policy to regulate children’s marketing.“

Not that television is the only culprit – far from it. Children’s screen time is increasingly comprised of other sources, such as the Internet and gaming, which encompass other forms of marketing that can oftentimes be even more difficult for a child to identify. This is especially true of “advergames,” a relatively new species of advertising in which an online game revolves around the product in order to promote or reinforce the brand (i.e. www.luckycharms.com). So far, little research has looked at children’s exposure to food marketing on the Internet. Potvin Kent is currently conducting studies examining marketing to children on English and French language food and beverage websites in Canada. She’s also looking at the many advergames on these sites designed for kids. 

All of it leads to questions of whether better controls should – or could -- be in place. “There are voluntary guidelines on marketing to children in place right now that might have to become mandatory in the future if we are going to control this,” says Raine, who adds that the emphasis right now in this area is on television. 

“We do get a lot of advertising through television and there is a belief that there is potential for us to control advertising on television, whereas the Internet is more difficult for us to do. It’s more a practical matter of deciding where we act.”

Changes to the frequency and type of food advertising can change children’s attitudes and food preferences. There is strong evidence to suggest that the advertising for so-called “fun foods” – food that includes an element of entertainment and is usually low in nutritional value – has a direct relationship to food preference. The appeal of food packaging alone can determine children’s preferences. Even if children are able to understand the concept of healthy eating, the presence of licensed characters or entertainment value has been shown to override children’s assessments of nutritional value. 

While there is strong support for a national advertising policy, there is also agreement that it isn’t the only solution. “I don’t think we should obsess over whether this is going to solve the obesity epidemic,” says Raine.  “Even if we were successful in banning all marketing to children, I don’t think we’re going to solve the problem. It’s just part of the solution.” 

“The parallel is tobacco. If you look at the history of tobacco reduction over the past 30 to 40 years, individual efforts, such as increases in taxes, restrictions of advertising, restrictions of access to kids and now restrictions on openly displayed packs; any one of those individually did not make a huge impact, but collectively, they do,” says Raine.  “A trap that we can fall into in the obesity area is the assumption that if we make one change, we’re going to solve the problem. What we have to do is make many changes that work together to create a culture where healthy, active living is normal.”