TV Commercials Strongly Affect Children’s Eating Habits

Many previous studies have shown that exposure to television commercials related to food has increased the consumption of calorie-rich foods by children, which adversely affects their health. However, there have been no studies conducted so far to assess the direct effect on food choices between children who watch more television (more than 21 hours/week) and those who watch less television (less than 21 hours/week). The present study, the first of its kind, examines not only this relationship, but also examines children’s preference for branded and nonbranded foods. “Exposure to television food commercials enhanced high television viewers’ preferences for branded foods and increased reported food preference for all food items (branded and nonbranded) relative to the low television viewers.”

Television viewing has been proved to have detrimental effects on the health of children. Several studies have shown that children who view television for a longer time tend to consume more food that is rich in calories and poor in nutrition, and thus become obese. These effects occur irrespective of the economic and social status of the family. The present study examined the response of children who watched more television; they showed a greater preference for certain foods and food-related advertisements. This was compared with the response of children who watched less television. It was found that high levels of television viewing assumed a greater cumulative exposure to food advertising. Viewing of advertisements related to toys was taken as control in the present experiment.

* The present study was performed on 281 (out of 306) participants, aged between 6 and 13 years, and was conducted from December 2006 to July 2007.
* In the first part of the experiment, the participants were shown toy-related advertisements for 30 seconds (of five minutes) followed by a 20-minute “Scooby-Doo” cartoon. Later they completed three standardized food preference measures and a commercial recognition measure, on which they were scored.
* Following the first part, the duration of television viewed by each child was assessed by using a television viewing questionnaire. Following the second part, the height and weight of the children were measured.

* “After viewing the food commercials, all children selected more branded and nonbranded fat-rich and carbohydrate-rich items from food preference checklists compared with after viewing the toy commercials.”
* This effect was more pronounced in children who viewed television for a longer time; there was greater preference for branded food items.
* Viewing toy commercials did not affect the food preferences between those who watched more TV and those who watched less TV.

Shortcomings/Next steps
The factors responsible for increased responsiveness to food commercials due to longer TV viewing must be identified. This will enable devising strategies to decrease the ill-effects on health due to television watching. Some children may be exposed to food advertisements on the Internet, which has not been included in this study. Future studies must take this issue into consideration. Selecting food items from a checklist may be different from the actual consumption of food. Hence, better techniques to measure the food preference are necessary. High-protein and low-energy density foods are not included in the checklist of branded items. Sensitivity and validity of all the tests employed must be checked, as they affect the outcome of the study.

This is the first study that has evaluated the effect of television watching, by children, on the response to food commercials. This study has also shown that increase in food consumption and the choice of food rich in fat and carbohydrates and poor in nutrition like proteins, vegetables and fruits, are independent of the brand shown on the television. Long hours of television viewing have an overall deleterious effect on children’s health. The American Academy of Pediatrics has recommended that the maximum duration of television watching by children must be restricted to less than two hours per day. The present study supports this recommendation. Reduction in duration of television viewing will help in choosing healthy food items and, thereby, it help in reducing the prevalence of childhood obesity.

For More Information:
Food Commercials Increase Preference for Energy-Dense Foods, Particularly in Children Who Watch More Television
Publication Journal: Pediatrics, June 2011
By Emma Boyland, PhD; Joanne Harold, PhD; University of Liverpool, England

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