June 27, 2011 -- Too much TV watching and Internet use may not just turn children into couch potatoes, it may also make them crave junk food and have trouble sleeping.
A new policy statement from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) warns that excessive media exposure poses a variety of threats to children's health and calls for parents and health care providers to take action.
"We've created a perfect storm for childhood obesity -- media, advertising, and inactivity," says researcher Victor Strasburger, MD, a member of the AAP council on communications and media, in a news release. "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."
"Thirty years ago, the federal government ruled that young children are psychologically defenseless against advertising. Now, kids see 5,000 to 10,000 food ads per year, most of them for junk food and fast food," says Strasburger.
Two new studies published along with the statement in Pediatrics also highlight the media's negative effect on children's sleep and eating habits.
Media's Impact on Kids' Eating Habits
The first study showed watching television commercials for fast food and sugary cereals increased children's desire to eat fatty and carbohydrate-rich food in general, not just the foods advertised.
Researchers say the findings contradict the food industry's assertion that advertising affects brand choices only. Instead, the study showed that watching TV commercials for junk food increased cravings for both branded and non-branded energy-dense and nutrient-poor foods.
The study also showed that the food preferences of children who watched more television were more affected by food commercials than those who watched less television.
Overall, the children correctly recognized more food commercials than toy commercials.
Media's Effect on Children's Sleep
In the second study, researchers looked at the effect of the timing and content of media exposure on preschool children's sleep.
The results showed that children exposed to violent content during the day on television, video games, or on the computer were more likely to have sleep problems, such as nightmares, waking during the night, and daytime sleepiness.
In addition, evening media use of any type was associated with an increased risk of sleep problems. Researchers found each additional hour of daytime violent media content or evening media use was associated with an increase in the likelihood of sleep problems among children.
Researchers also found children who had a television in the bedroom watched more media and were more likely to have sleep problems. Children who had a bedroom TV averaged an additional 15 minutes of evening use each night and an extra 12 minutes of violent content viewed during the day.
Advice to Parents
The AAP's policy statement says mounting evidence shows that media have an influence on children's weight in ways beyond just making them more sedentary.
These and other recent studies suggest that media have negative effects on children's eating habits by increasing craving for junk food and fast food and increasing snacking while watching TV.
Violent content and late-night viewing may also interfere with children's sleep, which can put kids at risk for obesity.
The statement recommends that pediatricians and parents work to reduce the effects of media on childhood obesity by:
- Discussing food advertising with children while monitoring TV viewing and teaching them about good nutrition.
- Limiting 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.
- Working with community groups and schools to implement media education programs in classrooms, child care centers, and community centers.
- Being aware that children with a lot of screen time also have more stress, which increases the risk for obesity as well as diabetes, mood disorders, and asthma.
The AAP advocates a ban on junk food advertising and restrictions on interactive food advertising to young children via digital media.