The Media’s Impact on Childhood Obesity | Teen Ink

The Media’s Impact on Childhood Obesity

January 20, 2008
By Anonymous

According to the United States Surgeon General, “preventable morbidity and mortality associated with obesity may soon exceed those associated with cigarette smoking”. Obesity is becoming more prevalent among all citizens, especially children. Today, it is rare to see kids playing outside, something that was once associated with the carefree days of youth. Instead, many adolescents can be found eating at fast-food restaurants, playing on the computer, or watching television. Childhood obesity is negatively impacting people worldwide, and the media is significantly contributing to the problem.

First, there are many problems that result from childhood obesity. Since the 1980s, the number of overweight children from ages six to eleven has doubled. Shockingly, even 10 percent of two to five-year-olds are overweight. If these children become obese, they can develop serious complications, such as diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, asthma, and sleep disorders. Being overweight also affects the mental health of children, causing low self-esteem and depression. Additionally, researchers estimate that 80 percent of obese children remain obese as adults, and this could negatively impact future health care costs in the United States.

While there are many factors that contribute to the obesity pandemic, one cause is the media. The average child spends five-and-a-half hours a day with media, second only to sleeping. Twenty-five percent of kids as young as ages two through five have a television in their room. The more a child uses media, the more he or she is likely to be overweight, although not from the seemingly obvious reason of being sedentary. Conversely, research shows that media use does not replace exercise. It is actually the exposure to food advertisements that researchers believe is the origin of the problem.

In fact, the media uses commercials to manipulate children. According to Eric Schlosser, “Many studies had found that young children often could not tell the difference between television programming and television advertising. They also could not comprehend the real purpose of commercials and trusted that the advertising claims were true”. Unfortunately for adolescents, the food industry is cognizant of this information and uses it for its benefit. In 2004, the food industry spent an estimated ten billion dollars on marketing campaigns designed for youth. Many advertisements utilize popular television and movie characters to raise their appeal. During weekend morning cartoons, one food commercial runs approximately every five minutes.

Furthermore, companies also use the Internet and kids clubs to increase sales of their unhealthy, processed foods. They use these outlets to learn about children’s preferences. Many products have websites where children can play games related to that food. In fact, on some websites, children earn more points by filling out marketing surveys. Also, children can join certain food clubs to receive promotional mail. Since Burger King developed its Kids Club in 1991, sales for children’s meals have increased by 300 percent.

Moreover, food companies have even found a way to target children in a place that was once a haven from the influential media: schools. For example, Pizza Hut’s Book It program gives elementary school children one free Personal Pan Pizza a month if they read a book. Many companies target poor schools by donating televisions or money - if the teachers show two minutes of commercials a day or hang posters advertising their food products. Also, soda companies want to advertise in schools because they see elementary-school children as the optimal age to influence, especially because many adults are not buying as much soda. One in five public schools even sells branded fast foods, such as McDonalds, Pizza Hut, and Subway, in the cafeteria.

Consequently, it is no wonder why so many children are obese: they are being bombarded with food advertisements everywhere! When advertising forms a positive connotation with a certain product, kids have a much stronger desire for that food. For example, in the 1970s, children drank twice as much milk as soda. Today, the situation is reversed. Even 20 percent of American toddlers – ages one to two – drink soda daily.
What's more, the food industry knows that kids are the key to their parents’ wallets. If a child wants a specific product enough, he or she is likely to obtain it from his or her parents. As one marketer stated, “It’s not just getting kids to whine, it’s giving them a specific reason to ask for the product”. Also, businesses- such as Pizza Hut- offer their seemingly generous incentives with one thing in mind: more money. Each child who comes for a free pizza will also bring his or her family, resulting in more customers. Companies strive to be seen in a positive manner so that parents and children like them. They know that an adult who had fond memories of eating at McDonalds as a child is likely to spend money there throughout his or her whole life.

Even though the current generation has been coined as “the fattest, least fit kids ever,” all hope is not lost. Through education, children can learn about the nutritional quality of foods, thereby enabling them to make better food decisions throughout their day. Parents need to be taught about preparing healthy meals as well, so that whole families can work together. Once people consistently choose foods because of their nutrient value – not because Spongebob is on the box – the United States will be a leaner, healthier place. The media should change as well, showing more advertisements of people exercising and eating healthy foods. This generation is capable of change, and the obesity epidemic will one day be a thing of the past. What can you do to help?

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