Childhood obesity has become a rising problem that is because its effects carry on into adulthood. Over the last thirty years, overweight children and adolescents in America has more than doubled. Children are increasingly engaged in more non-active activities rather than exercising. Watching television may contribute to childhood obesity both by reducing energy expenditure from displacement of physical activity, increasing energy intake from snacking during television or as a result of over-exposure to food advertising. The contribution of commercial advertising is an ongoing problem because it is a circle of food that repeats itself, feeding on children. This paper will explore the relationship between the exposure to advertising on television and the sedentary lifestyles from a genetic and environmental standpoint to answer the question “are marketing advertisements the only monster making our children fat or should we put blame elsewhere?” Behavioral and environmental factors are large contributors to the obesity epidemic and are also the most easily modifiable causes of obesity among children. Television is suspected to be one potential contributor to childhood obesity through several possible avenues. First, television time will displace time spent engaging in physical activity. If children are watching television, then they are not being active.
The sedentary nature of watching television further encourages one to consume unhealthy foods. This is because of the casual “tradition” of television and chips or movies and popcorn. Moreover, being exposed to food advertisements on television, children and adolescents are more prone to developing unhealthy dietary habits that are likely to carry over into adulthood. Commercials are buzzed constantly on the screen. The over-abundance of messages drilling children to buy the food advertised creates a direct cause and effect- they see it every day, they buy it, they eat/drink it, and the pattern repeats. In periods during which childhood obesity increased drastically, there was an increased amount of time spent watching television and an increased exposure to food advertising by children and adolescents. Around 1950, “only 2 percent of households in the United States had television sets; by the early 1990s, 98 percent of households owned at least one, and over 60 percent had cable television” (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2006). The majority of advertisements targeted at children are ones of food “with minimum nutritional value: candy (32 percent of all children’s advertisements), cereal (31 percent) and fast-food restaurants (9 percent)” (CDC, 2006).
The United States has come to view children as a huge marketing group. Food marketers’ great interests are youths because of their power to spend, their purchase influence, and their consumption in the future as adults. Starting with children, even as young as toddlers, researchers have developed advertisements to hook children on certain foods and beverages to promote food brands recognition and eventually product purchase. These techniques include television commercials, in-school promotion, the internet, toys, and proper placement of products in stores. The foods advertised are mostly sugary and fatty foods. While prior studies have confirmed correlations between television watching and obesity in children, few have looked at the effect that fast-food restaurant advertising on television might have on childhood obesity. Several studies reviewed by the Kaiser Family Foundation (2004) indirectly pointed to the positive relationship between television advertising and caloric intake. For example, Giammattei found that “middle-school children who watched more television tended to consume more soft drinks, a possible consequence of exposure to food advertising on television” (“Watching Television”).
Obviously children are easily molded by what they see in television commercials. The more children that watch television, the more they specifically request the brand-name products that are advertised on television when at the grocery store. Moreover, children, especially younger ones, may not be able to distinguish advertisements from regular programs and have little understanding of their persuasive intent. “Food is the second largest advertised item in the United States economy” (Gallo, 177). Some reasons for food advertising being as large as it is include the following: 1) food is a repeat purchase item, 2) food is a highly branded item, and 3) food is a large portion of spending among consumers in the United States. Television is the largest source of media directing food towards children. In fact, “over 75% of US food manufacturers’ advertising budgets and 95% of US fast-food restaurant budgets are allocated to television” (Gallo, 175). Much of this media seeks to promote foods like sweets, carbonated drinks and unhealthy snack to children by associating items that they value such as, toys that go together with the commercial products.
The use of children’s favorite characters and linking products with concepts such as fun, happiness, and well-being to food advertisements can also entice children to consume these unhealthy snacks. It is estimated that children view up to “40,000 advertisements a year” (Strasburger, 2001). In a society in which children are becoming more obese, inactive, and often unable to focus due to attention deficit disorders, it is clear that big business companies only care about their own pocketbook. These commercials encourage today’s children to purchase all types of unhealthy food items. Children have even asked for certain types of fast food restaurant to receive a desired happy meal toy. Food products are the most commonly advertised item during peak hours of children’s TV watching. Many of the foods shown were high not just in fat and in sugar, but also in salt. The childhood obesity epidemic is a serious problem. It increases morbidity, mortality, and has long-term economic and social effects. The rate of obesity in children and adolescents in the United States has nearly tripled in the last 25 years. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “the prevalence of obesity has more than doubled among children ages 2 to 5 (5% to 12.4%), ages 6 to 11 (6.58% to 17%), and teens ages 12 to 19 (5% to 17.6%)” (“NHANES data”).
Children ages eight to eighteen take in several sources of media and spend most of their time in front of computers, televisions, and video games versus physical activities. Research studies found a strong correlation between massive amounts of advertising of unhealthy foods with childhood obesity. It has also been concluded that most children cannot tell the difference between the programs they are watching. Large advertising companies argue that the increasing amount of obesity in children is not directly related to their food products and advertisements. Their argument is that the customer has to choose to buy the product. The companies also claim that it is the parents’ fault for the obesity, because they buy the food for their children. However, many of these advertisements encourage children to manipulate their parents into buying the food products for them, so it is the influence of advertising, and not just the parents who are contributing to the trend in childhood obesity. In fact, children spend billions of dollars each year because of these advertisements. This has doubled since 1993. So, evidence reveals that: more advertising equals more consumption and more consumption leads to obesity. If we are to stop the effects of television advertisements and its effects on the rapid growth of obesity in our children, we must educate parents, and children, about eating healthier.
Limiting junk food advertisements in children’s programs is a head start. By not supporting the products in commercials and petitioning government entities to make it a requirement to increase the number of commercials that broadcast healthy foods in during children’s programming, obesity should decrease greatly, I believe. The rising rate of childhood obesity presents one of the most significant public health challenges we face. Most studies indicate that children who spend more time with media are more susceptible to be overweight than children who do not. The main mechanism by which media use contributes to childhood obesity may well be through children’s exposure to billions of dollars of food advertising and cross-promotional marketing year after year, starting at the very youngest ages- with children’s favorite media characters often as part of the sales pitch. Marketers will do what they can to encourage even the youngest children to ask for advertised products in the hope of enticing young people to become life-time customer.
In order to save the youth, there needs to be a ban on fast-food television advertisements during children’s programming. A ban on fast food advertisements in the United States could reduce the number of overweight children. If these advertised products are not purchased, manufactures will not make money. If the manufacturers do not make money, they will not be able to advertise their products. If the products are not advertised, generations ahead of us will not be flooded with unhealthy foods. In the end, if advertisers are stopped, children will not be targeted, and they (children) will not be faced with destroying their bodies and their futures.
James McNeal in his book Children as Customers estimates that there are about three billion children in industrialized countries: “Letting ones imagination run wild for a moment, if these children spend only half of what U.S. children spend, their market potential would be equal to around $86.5 billion”(McNeal).Many other countries are strengthening their advertising laws fearing that their children may become obese like the ones in the United States.
As recent as 2005 the children’s television program “Sesame Street”, which is a commercial free program, has started to change their programming format to include healthy and nutritional eating habits. “C” used to stand for cookie, now it also stands for cauliflower, carrots, and cabbage. Hopefully many advertising agencies and big business companies will take note of this trend, and begin to promote a healthier lifestyle for our children. If this does not happen federal law makers may have to intervene. In several other countries they are strengthening their advertising laws in an effort to thwart obesity in their nation’s children. In a glimpse at what could be the legislative landscape of the future, many are watching France to see how new government regulation will play out, and how marketers can influence the interpretation of new rules. Under a law passed in July 2004 that will apply only to TV and radio advertisements marketers in France can either add a health message to advertisements for any manufactured food or beverage except water, or pay a tax. Greece also bans advertising between the hours of 7:00 a.m. and 10:00 p.m. Sweden and Norway ban all advertising to children under the age of 12.
Axel Edling, the Swedish consumer ombudsman and chief of Sweden’s consumer agency, explains why: “There were indications that children up to the age of seven were not fully aware of the distinction between TV advertisements and ordinary programs. Even older children were not able to understand the commercial process. It is considered that it is not a fair way of dealing with very small consumers because they are being exploited.” While in Europe they are protecting their children, whereas we in the United States are protecting the advertising agencies and corporate advertisers. In 1978 the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) concluded in their report that because of children’s venerability’s television advertisements aimed at them are inherently unfair. They proposed a ban on such advertisements because children are too young to understand the selling purpose. Consequently, congress prohibited the FTC from issuing such rules, and revoked many of their powers. Children cannot vote or make the large campaign contributions needed to win political power in Washington.
They have neither powerful lobbyists nor a powerful political organization. Advertisers do, and in Washington they win. The past several decades have seen an escalating trend in the rate of childhood obesity not only in the United States where over a quarter of all children are affected, but also in many of the industrialized nations. Obesity starts from childhood and as a result, the economic cost of the medical expenses as well as the lost income resulting from the complications of obesity both in children and adults has been estimated at the billions. Overweight children are more predisposed to the danger of becoming overweight in their adulthood. Obesity in adulthood is a huge reason for common diseases today- especially Diabetes. The current lifestyle in which many children spend a lot of time watching advertisements for sugary and fatty foods television while eating sugary and fatty foods is the circle of evil where children keep getting fatter. Regarding the causes of childhood obesity, several theories of etiology including genetic, developmental, and environmental, have been proposed. Despite the prevalence of childhood obesity rising dramatically over the past three or four decades, major challenges still face the fight against the condition due to its under-diagnosis and under-treatment.
Childhood obesity has been on the rise with the years; “between the 1980s and 1990s indicating a three times increase from nearly 5% to almost 15% for both children and teens” (CDCP). The National Health and Nutritional Examination Survey (NHANES) have been conducting studies on the prevalence of childhood obesity since the 1960s. According to its records, there has been an increasing trend in the rates of childhood obesity between 1963 and 2008 for children aged between 2 and 19 years. For instance, about 4.2% of children aged between 6 and 11 years and 4.6% of children aged 12-19 years were obese during the years between 1963 and 1970 (Williams, 2011). The statistics for 1988 showed that the prevalence rate for the “children aged 6-11 years had rose to about 11.3% whereas that for 12-19 year olds had escalated to 10.5%” (Williams, 2011). The next statistics to be released for the year 2001 were even more shocking since the rates of childhood obesity for the 6-11 year olds had reached over 16%. From 2007 to 2008, the NHANES revealed that about 19.6% of children aged between 6-11 years and 18.1% of 12-19 year olds were obese. In addition, the rate of childhood obesity for children aged between 2 and 5 years increased from 5% to 10.4% between 1971 and 2008 (Williams, 2011). It would not be surprising to find that the statistics from 2008 to 2013 showed an even greater jump in percentages because more people have televisions and there have been more fast-food restaurants build. Food is more accessible now then five years ago. As a result, the obesity rate will surely be affected.
Not only are children constantly bombarded with advertising messages at home, but when are school, they can’t escape the dwindling essence of health. In schools, other than Illinois, there is not a push to exercise- and even then the amount is way below that of what is recommended. As seen in Fast Food Nation, the children only exercised in physical education once or twice a week. The idea is simple: at home children see advertisements for food, they overeat, and when they come to school, the physical education program is cut or decreased to make room for more “important” areas- such as increased reading or studying time. In most schools, physical education has not been given a priority and this has reduced the level of children’s’ involvement in physical exercises. Studies have shown that television viewing coupled with excessive energy intake is a greater problem than lack of physical exercise. Therefore, children who grow in home environments that encourage prolonged television viewing and consumption of foods high in caloric content are at a high risk of developing childhood obesity. It is worth mentioning that there is often interplay between these factors so that any particular case of obesity in a child may not necessarily emanate from a single factor. The environmental hypothesis alludes to the sedentary lifestyle and the environment that most children are exposed to.
For instance, for most school going children, fast foods and soft drinks that have high sugar content are frequently consumed. Many children are exposed to foods that are rich in saturated fats and a decreased consumption of vegetables, fruits, and foods rich in fiber is notable. This trend coupled with the lack of physical exercises results in a huge imbalance between energy intake and energy output which leads to overweight and eventually obesity. It was not until recently that soda and candy machines were taken out of easy access in schools. Schools are starting to realize that if soda machines were replaced with water or healthier choices, it can make a huge difference. It is not enough however to simply “cut” time from the vending machines, like some schools do. The argument is that is children are only allowed to get food from them during lunch hours, and then during class they will be more focused. Yet, some schools have gone the opposite direction in the fight to reduce obesity.
The advertising companies have made contracts with schools to place signs everywhere: on buses, in classrooms, and even in grade schools. The schools win because they are getting a big check, the soda or other advertising companies win because their product is placed in direct traffic of students. But, I believe this is exactly the problem. Placing Pepsi or Coke signs in grade school halls is doing exactly what the advertisements on television do: they send messages to young children that repeat themselves over time so that they have established brand recognition and brand loyalty. Children cannot escape. The natural response to shed extra calories from food placed inside from the school’s administrators is to exercise, but the physical education programs are taking a backseat to health. School lunches, according to Fast Food Nation, are also a huge factor on the opposite side of health reform in schools. Meaning, the schools serve meals that are over 1,100 calories some days. The vending machines are open during this time and administrators secretly hope students purchase from them to increase the contractual money. The typical cheap school lunch is very rarely ever “homemade”- frozen meat comes in boxes and pizza is just heated for a quick and “nutritious meal”, as the schools try to pass it off as. Many students, however simply grab a bag of chips (or two) and pop. For others, chocolate and French fries will do the trick. Interestingly, the only school shown to serve healthy foods for lunch is a school for disciplinary children.
Fast Food Nation covered an important issue: schools needs to make school lunches more health. Without a proper school lunch (one without access to vending machines) the school is just adding fuel to the fire. Children get enough access to advertisements, even in class from Channel1, on a daily basis. The current attitude is to look the other direction and hope children make the “right” choices. But, with the increase in obesity, the answer is evident. Help make the right foods available, mandate physical education, and stop shaking hands with advertising companies because otherwise, the current trend will continue. The etiology of childhood obesity can also be explained by the developmental origin hypothesis which proposes that exposure of the fetus to an intrauterine environment that is overly rich in nutrients increases the risk of the child becoming overweight after birth. This is because the plentiful exposure to certain nutrients at this stage of development affects fetal metabolism such that the child’s body will likely develop an increased energy demand during later stages of development. Consequently, the child will develop a habit of overeating in an effort to meet this energy demand.
The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) Expert Committee bases the diagnostic criteria for childhood obesity on the body mass index (BMI). Depending on gender and age, BMIs are classified as percentiles. If a child is 2 years and above, this measurement can be used in which a BMI of greater than or equal to 95th percentile represents a case of obese child. It is extremely important for obesity in childhood to be evaluated so as to prevent the progression of the disorder into adulthood where it possesses serious health risks. These morbidities include hyperuricemia, hyperlipidemia, some types of cancers particularly colon cancer, and type 2 diabetes. Dr. Robin S. Goland, co-director of the Naomi Berrie Diabetes Center, told the New York Times that “With the numbers we are starting to see, this could be the beginning of an epidemic”(Thompson 1998).
If left untreated, these morbidities are likely to occur in adulthood in addition to negative social and psychological implications such as low self-esteem. The progression of childhood obesity into adulthood depends on a number of factors. These include the age of disease onset, the presence of the condition in at least one parent, and the degree of severity of the disease. However, after the child’s age goes beyond 3 years, the likelihood of obesity persisting into adulthood increases as the child advances in age. In children of all age groups with severe obesity, the risk of the condition persisting into adult is even higher. Moreover, it is estimated that the majority of obese adolescents will remain obese even when they become adults. At every age, if at least one parent is obese, there is an increased risk of persistence in childhood obesity. There has been ranging discrepancy between the success of metabolic treatment interventions in obesity and the failures that have been noted in the use of behavioral treatment interventions.
This discrepancy alludes to the fact that childhood obesity besides having a clear metabolic origin also has a psychological dimension which thus qualifies it as a brain disorder. In this regard, the mental component should be targeted by treatment interventions so as to minimize relapse and facilitate compliance. Despite the remarkable psychological and medical consequences of childhood obesity, the DSM-IV TR does not recognize it as a mental disorder. By considering the features of childhood obesity, it is important for it to be represented in DSM-IV TR as a mental disorder. Some of its features include an irresistible urge to eat food and an accompanying inability to refrain from this trend despite the desire to do so. It is worth noting that though not recognized in the DSM-IV TR, these features of childhood obesity parallels those used as the criteria for the inclusion of drug dependence and substance abuse in the DSM-IV. Therefore, some people have strongly suggested that childhood obesity be regarded as a food addiction.
The advertising companies pounce on children as targets to feed their profit margin, literally. With the population getting bigger, genetics and environment also play a role in why children are obese. The negative effects of seeing advertisements for food from, in some cases, age two, are mixed with the overwhelming increase in food consumption. At first, I was solely blaming the evil marketing companies for flashing pop and candy in children’s faces but the reality is that genetics and outsides forces also add to the mixture that children need better alternatives to live a healthier life. Childhood obesity was explored to prove that if the link between seeing food on the screen, the easy accessibility to it from the purposeful manipulation of parents that the messages send, the lack of physical education, high calorie school lunches, and of course, the actual overeating is not broken, we will have a generation that does not outlive its parents.