Television Advertising and Childhood Obesity, Part 5

Television stencil

Would you be surprised to learn that we have talked about TV before? Not with a title like this one! And you probably wonder what there could possibly be more to say about the immense amount of money spent by food corporations that relentlessly fill our kids’ heads with visions of sugarplums. Is there anything left to reveal about the subliminal messages planted in their little brains? Haven’t we heard enough about the relationship between childhood obesity and a sedentary lifestyle?

The answers are no, no, and no. There is always more to learn and more to deplore. Elena Serrano and Cindy Barden of the Virginia Cooperative Extension took on the task of rendering more reader-friendly the study compiled by Ann A. Hertzel, Mick Coleman, and Elaine D. Scott of the same institution. The results were an overview of what happens when food, children, and electronic media intersect. The researchers considered the effects not only of network television, but music videos, video games, and computer use in general.

Some of their findings are not very surprising. By the time they grow up, most kids will have spent more time contemplating a TV screen than paying attention to a teacher. Expressed in such general terms, this idea loses some of its punch. But when specific numbers come into play, things get interesting. For instance, did you know that the average high school graduate will have seen 360,000 TV commercials? That’s a lot of brainwashing. Now, add in this:

Food is the most often advertised item on children’s television. Most of these ads are for products high in fat, sugar, or salt. Fast foods are also very heavily marketed to kids. Children who spend more time watching TV tend to eat more calories; fat, sweet, and salty snacks; and drink more soda. They also eat fewer fruits and vegetables.

Little kids ages two to six have been found to be extremely vulnerable. They only have to see a commercial once or twice to start forming very strong preferences for the stuff that’s advertised. As Liz Snyder once wrote,

[… M]ost kids have strong emotional ties and ‘brand loyalty’ to every disastrous food choice made by a handful of junk-pedaling food companies.

Serrano and Barden explain that children as young as three can follow a storyline and tell one character from another in a TV show. By six or seven, they have a grasp of behavior and relationships and “moral messages” as delivered by the plots of television programs. But they’re not yet able to comprehend levels of meaning, symbolism, satire, and other more adult concepts, and it doesn’t occur to them to practice any kind of formal criticism of what they see and hear.

Young children don’t have the mental filters that separate fact from fiction. They are very open to suggestion, and prone to believe that Product A will make a person popular, Product B will bring a person delirious happiness, and if Mommy doesn’t buy you Product C, it means she doesn’t love you. They’re soaking up messages that encourage the continual ingestion of food-like substances that are inimical to health.

But that’s not the only way in which electronic media contribute to childhood obesity. A kid who’s collapsed in a heap, staring at a screen, is obviously not moving around burning calories. Metabolism slows down to the equivalent of sleep. Television time is also prime time for snacks. Thousands of images of people eating, drinking, eating, drinking, and eating, while watching TV, are burned into their retinas, and they go forth and do likewise.

Consequently, we wind up with a whole lot of fat kids, like the ones in Dr. Pretlow’s presentation, “Why Are Children Overweight?” Consider the kid who says, “I hate my life” (Slide 4), and the one who says, “I hate looking in the mirror, it’s the saddest part of my day.” (Slide 9.)

Serrano and Barden also pass on the recommendations made by the research team, such as limiting electronic media to two hours a day (good luck with that one.) Parents are asked to make TV-watching a family activity, with the grownups standing by ready to interpret and challenge. Discussion is encouraged, so parents can get a line on exactly what notions their kids are picking up from programs and commercials, and counteract them if necessary.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Kids, Food, and Electronic Media,” Virginia Cooperative Extension, 05/01/09
Source: “Real Food, Real Kids, Real Love: 10 (surprising!) ways to raise a healthy eater,”
Image by *USB*, used under its Creative Commons license.

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The Book

OVERWEIGHT: What Kids Say explores the obesity problem from the often-overlooked perspective of children struggling with being overweight.

About Dr. Robert A. Pretlow

Dr. Robert A. Pretlow is a pediatrician and childhood obesity specialist. He has been researching and spreading awareness on the childhood obesity epidemic in the US for more than a decade.
You can contact Dr. Pretlow at:


Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the American Society of Animal Science 2020 Conference
What’s Causing Obesity in Companion Animals and What Can We Do About It

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the World Obesity Federation 2019 Conference:
Food/Eating Addiction and the Displacement Mechanism

Dr. Pretlow’s Multi-Center Clinical Trial Kick-off Speech 2018:
Obesity: Tackling the Root Cause

Dr. Pretlow’s 2017 Workshop on
Treatment of Obesity Using the Addiction Model

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation for
TEC and UNC 2016

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the 2015 Obesity Summit in London, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s invited keynote at the 2014 European Childhood Obesity Group Congress in Salzburg, Austria.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2013 European Congress on Obesity in Liverpool, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2011 International Conference on Childhood Obesity in Lisbon, Portugal.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2010 Uniting Against Childhood Obesity Conference in Houston, TX.

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