Kids’ Media and Obesity

In its July 2011 issue of Pediatrics, The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) published a new policy statement on the impact of Kids’ Media (TV, computers, videogames) on the ever-worsening worldwide obesity epidemic. The policy intends to challenge our conventional understanding of this issue: that by engaging with Kid’s media, children are choosing sedentary activity over active activity. In other words, until recently we have thought that Kids’ Media contributes to obesity simply by means of taking up time that would have otherwise been spent being more active: the more the media engagement, the more sedentary the lifestyle. As valid as this model might be, a growing body of literature is emerging suggesting that the sinister effects of kids’ media go far beyond its opportunity cost. We are learning that the advertising messages in kids’ media are adversely influencing dietary choices. Furthermore, children eat more both while and after screentime engagement. Interestingly, too, late night screen time interferes with sleep quality, and poor sleep quality is well known to cause or worsen obesity.

In all likelihood, the medical research published thus far is only unveiling the tip of the iceberg in terms of how media is adversely affecting the physical,psychological, and emotional well-being of our children and adolescents. In the AAP publication AAP News highlights, Victor Strasburger, MD, FAAP, is quoted as saying “We’ve created a perfect storm for childhood obesity – media, advertising, and inactivity. American society couldn’t do a worse job at the moment of keeping children fit and healthy – too much TV, too many food ads, not enough exercise, and not enough sleep.”

The new policy statement focuses on getting pediatricians to advocate more strongly for limiting this powerful reach and negative impact of kids’ media. Below is a summary of the policy statement’s recommendations:

  • Encourage parents to discuss food advertising with their children as they monitor children’s TV viewing and teach them about good nutrition.
  • Continue to counsel parents to limit total, non-educational screen time to no more than two hours per day, and avoid putting TV sets and Internet connections in children’s bedrooms.
  • Work with community groups and schools to implement media education programs in classrooms, child care centers and community centers.
  • Be aware that children with high levels of screen time also have more stress, putting them at risk not only for obesity but for a number of other conditions such as diabetes, mood disorders and asthma.

The statement also advises that pediatricians and primary care providers advocate on local, state, and national levels for:

  • a ban on junk food advertising
  • restrictions on interactive food advertising to children via digital media
  • funding for research into the health and psychosocial effects of heavy media use in children
  • more prosocial media platforms and resources for children that encourage them to choose healthy foods

It will be interesting to see, over time, whether these recommendations translate into some meaningful success in the fight against the worldwide obesity crisis.

Do you think that kids’ media is as sinister as the AAP is making it out to be or is their position right on the mark? Should there be more focus on encouraging parents and/or the children themselves to take more responsibility for their individual health and lifestyle circumstances? Please share your thoughts as comments below.