Last weekend I met a couple whose children are not permitted to discuss movies or video games at school. The children don’t watch television, have limited computer access and have only seen movies pre-screened by their parents.
There was a time when I might have viewed these restrictions as a bit excessive, but not anymore. With what’s being thrown at kids through media exposure these days, I’m all in with an environment that seeks to filter some of it. As a doctor who treats children, many of whom are overweight or obese, I don’t think there can be much doubt that child-directed advertising is fueling the obesity epidemic. Now, a recently published University of British Columbia study supports that theory with findings that suggest that banning fast-food advertising to children may actually curtail obesity.
Researchers found that a 32-year ban on fast-food advertising to kids in electronic and print media in Quebec resulted in a 13 percent reduction in fast-food expenditures and an estimated 2 billion to 4 billion fewer calories consumed by children in the province. While the rest of Canada has been experiencing the same explosion in childhood obesity seen here in the United States, Quebec has the lowest childhood obesity rate in Canada.
Meanwhile, in the face of our own raging obesity epidemic, child-directed advertising of unhealthful food to children continues unabated. The Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity has just released a 2012 report showing that little has changed since 2009, even though the cereal industry claims to have reduced advertising to children.
Despite a slight improvement in overall nutritional quality of kids’ cereals, children still get “one spoonful of sugar in every three spoonfuls of cereal,” according to Jennifer L. Harris, the lead researcher on the Rudd study, and that sugar is heavily marketed: in 2011, 6- to 11-year-olds viewed more than 700 ads per year for cereals on television while preschoolers saw 595. Cereal companies spent $264 million to promote child-targeted cereals in 2011 (an increase of 34 percent from just 2008). Other companies spend millions more promoting unhealthy products — and it works: television viewing and the associated advertising exposure correlate with an increased intake of candy and sugary sodas.
As if pushing unhealthy food wasn’t enough, pharmaceutical companies are now rolling out ads that are designed to appeal to kids. Children’s Claritin, an allergy medication, now includes Madagascar stickers and blogging mothers are encouraged to hold Claritin parties for all the neighborhood kids. We seem to have accepted the idea of companies encouraging children to ask for foods that aren’t healthy choices; now we’re accepting targeted advertising of products that children can’t possibly evaluate.
It doesn’t matter that children aren’t necessarily the ones checking out at the grocery store and driving up to the fast-food outlet. Parents are being bombarded with requests for sugary cereals, fast food and vitamins shaped like dinosaurs. “No” fatigue is rampant, and eventually, “no” doesn’t help. Other studies have shown that once children become teenagers and are able to exert more control over their food choices, they eat less healthily. Years of being saturated with advertising for exactly the foods parents try to regulate can’t help.
What can be done about the invasion of child-directed advertising? Parents need to be aware of the pervasive advertising their children are being exposed to, take steps to manage their child’s media exposure, provide healthy alternatives to cereals and fast food and support legislation to curtail advertising to kids.
We’ve already seen the Federal Trade Commission go weak in the knees about reeling in food advertising to children, but it is still possible that more cities will follow New York City’s ban on outsized sugary sodas and that state governments will take actions similar to Quebec’s. And we can always hope that more corporations will voluntarily follow the lead of the Walt Disney Company in setting nutritional standards for products advertised on all child-focused television channels, radio stations and Web sites.
When the consequences of alcohol and tobacco consumption, particularly to young people, were recognized, ads for these products were restricted if not outright banned worldwide. We need to pay similar attention to the long-range effects of advertising obesity, and not turn our children’s brains and their behavior over to those whose measure of success is not necessarily the same as ours.
Catherine Musemeche is a pediatric surgeon. She lives in Austin, Texas. You can follow her on Twitter @DrKateM.