Enter a new study appearing this month in the American Journal of Public Health. The authors of the study suggests that childhood obesity is directly related to how many junk food commercials children see. They say they know so based on data gathered from primary caregivers of 3,563 children, ranging from infants to 12-year-olds, in 1997. Through time-use diaries, study respondents reported their children's activities, including television viewing, throughout the course of an entire weekday and an entire weekend day.
Among all children, commercial viewing was significantly associated with higher BMI, although the effect was stronger for children younger than 7 than for those older than 7.
Lead author Frederick Zimmerman commented that "the persistence of these results, even when the child's baseline weight status was controlled, suggests that the association between commercial television viewing and obesity does not arise solely or even primarily because heavier children prefer commercial television. Commercial television pushes children to eat a large quantity of those foods they should consume least: sugary cereals, snacks, fast food and soda pop."
According to the authors, the findings strongly suggest that steering children away from commercial television may be effective in reducing childhood obesity, given that food is the most commonly advertised product on children's television and the fact that almost 90 percent of children begin watching television regularly before the age of 2.
Of course, the problem with many of the studies which try to pin responsibility for unhealthy lifestyles on one thing or one group of people, including this one, is that the authors simply correlate overeating (or whatever behavior they want to discourage) to whatever or whoever is the villain. In this case its advertising for sugary cereal and chicken McNuggets.
Study after study may carry on about how many commercials appear during Saturday morning cartoons and how they urge kids to eat terrible food, but if there's no proof of a causal link between the two, there's nothing scientific about it.
It also seems dubious to assume that kids are entirely incapable of comprehending the intent of advertising. While the food cops like to think that children are helpless when viewing commercials, there is plenty of research illustrating that children are discriminating consumers who are actually capable of thinking for themselves.
But perhaps children always have to be portrayed as mindless and food companies as heartless because parents may otherwise realize that blaming advertising for obesity is utterly ridiculous. And if that happens the need for a nanny state that tells people what to eat disappears--a thought probably unacceptable to people who push this kind of research.
Citation: Frederick J. Zimmerman, Janice F. Bell, 'Associations of Television Content Type and Obesity in Children', American Journal of Public Health, February 2010, 100(2) 334-340; doi: 10.2105/AJPH.2008.155119