In the middle decades of the twentieth century, childhood was characterized by a high level of physical activity and limited media use. The free time of children and adolescents focused on active play in neighborhood or school activities and included informal and organized sports. In this era—before the extensive distribution of fast food and the Internet—there was a reasonably high level of physical health of children and low rates of obesity. Less than 5 percent of children and adolescents 6 to 19 years of age were defined as obese in the 1960s. By 2008 almost 20 percent of children 6 to 11 and about 18 percent of youth 12 to 19 were defined as obese.1 The quadrupling of obesity rates has enormous implications for the health of our society, health-care costs, and quality of life.
The consequences of obesity at young ages are just beginning to be understood and include significantly higher rates of hypertension, high cholesterol, and all types of cardiovascular disease, as well as higher rates of diabetes and cancer.2 In less than 20 years, by 2030, Dr. Youfa Wang and his colleague from Johns Hopkins University estimate that in the United States a majority of adults, for the first time in history, will be obese.3 The costs and quality-of-life consequences of this fact are staggering. It’s estimated that by then we will be paying $3 billion per year in medical costs directly associated with excess weight as a result of today’s childhood obesity.4
Public health research has begun to understand what has contributed to these dramatic increases in the rates of childhood obesity and to develop programs to try to prevent the dire prediction of adult obesity from becoming reality. One of the causative factors focused on has been the burgeoning use of the media, especially by younger children. Time spent with media is time not spent in physical activity. During this same time period we have also seen a significant increase in calorie consumption by children and youth. A recent study found that from 1977 to 2006, children increased their energy intake by 179 kilocalories per day. This was associated with an increase in the consumption of calories away from home.5 These two elements (increased media use and the increase in calorie consumption) are viewed as causative factors in the epidemic of obesity and its consequences in our children and youth and the future consequences in adults.
Media and Fast Foods
Data clearly show the correlations between media use and fast-food consumption. During the period of time that obesity has exploded as a very serious problem among young people, there has been a similar increase in media directed at youngsters, including “TV shows and videos, specialized cable networks, video games, computer activities, and Internet Web sites.”6 Kids between the ages of 8 to 18 spend just more than 7.5 hours a day using entertainment media.7 Even very young children, those under 6 years of age, “spend as much time with screen media (TV, videos, video games, and computers) as they do playing outside.”8
Regarding TV exposure alone, the “average American child between the ages of 2 and 17 spends 25 hours per week watching television (approximately 20 percent to 30 percent of their waking hours). One study showed that 19 percent of children between the ages of 2 and 17 watch more than 35 hours of television per week. Most children will have spent more time in front of a television than in front of a teacher. It’s estimated that kids will have seen at least 360,000 commercials before they graduate from high school. More than one third of children have televisions in their bedrooms.
. . . This percentage is higher for older children, but even children as young as 2 years old have televisions in their bedrooms. Children with televisions in their bedrooms watch an average of five and a half hours more television each week than those without a television.”9
Checking the Evidence
Researchers reported associations between the time spent watching television and the prevalence of obesity. In the 12- to 17-year-old adolescents studied, the prevalence of obesity increased by 2 percent for each additional hour of television viewed.10 A very large study on media use called the Third National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey was conducted on youth, and data were collected from 1988 through 1994, when they collected information on 4,069 children. The researchers reported that “the prevalence of obesity [was] lowest among children watching one or fewer hours of television a day, and highest among those watching four or more hours of television a day.”11 Research continues to emerge examining the association between computer use (as well as TV use) and obesity.
A study published in the Italian Journal of Pediatrics reported that fast-food consumption was associated with excessive weekday television viewing. It also reported that consuming sugary drinks was associated with both excessive weekday television viewing as well as excessive weekday recreational computer use (not for school purposes). Finally, they found that those who ate five or more servings of fruits and vegetables tended to view less television and used the computer recreationally less often than their counterparts.12 The findings linking obesity to computer use are similarly reported in other research among adolescents.13
Video gaming is another form of electronic media that adolescents—and adults—often use. Researchers have found a strong relationship between video gaming and weight status of those studied. Their findings linking video gaming to obesity was strongest among youngsters 8 years old and younger.14
There is sufficient evidence linking electronic media use to obesity that when considering the severe potential health consequences of obesity among adolescents, it seems prudent for parents to monitor their children’s electronic media use very carefully. God has called us to care for our children’s physical, emotional, and spiritual needs. Monitoring their use of electronic media and helping them to use that time to participate in wholesome, healthful activities will certainly make a positive difference in their lives today and into adulthood.
1 Cynthia Ogden and Margaret Carroll, “Prevalence of Obesity Among Children and Adolescents: United States, Trends 1963–1965 Through 2007–2008,” accessed Sept. 11, 2011, and available at: www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/hestat/obesity_child_07_08/obesity_child_07_08.pdf.
2Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, “Childhood obesity Facts,” accessed Sept. 11, 2011, and available at: www.cdc.gov/HealthyYouth/obesity/.
3Youfa Wang, May A. Beydoun, Lan Liang, Benjamin Caballero, and Shiriki K. Kumanyika, “Will All Americans Become Overweight or Obese? Estimating the Progression and Cost of the U.S. Obesity Epidemic,” Obesity 16, no. 10 (July 2008): 2323-2330, accessed Sept. 11, 2011, and available at www.nature.com/oby/journal/v16/n10/full/oby2008351a.html.
4Leonardo Trasande and Samprit Chatterjee, “The Impact of Obesity on Health Service Utilization and Costs in Childhood,” Obesity 17, no. 9 (March 2009): 1749-1754, accessed Sept. 11, 2011, and available at www.nature.com/oby/journal/v17/n9/full/oby200967a.html.
5Jennifer M. Poti and Barry M. Popkin, “Trends in Energy Intake Among U.S. Children by Eating Location and Food Source, 1977-2006,” Journal of the American Dietetic Association 111, no. 8 (August 2011): 1156-1164.
6Kaiser Family Foundation, “The Role of Media in Childhood Obesity,” accessed Mar. 11, 2011, and available at www.kff.org/entmedia/upload/The-Role-Of-Media-in-Childhood-Obesity.pdf.
7Kaiser Family Foundation, “Generation M2: Media in the Lives of 8- to 18-Year-Olds,” accessed Mar. 11, 2011, and available at http://kff.org/entmedia/mh012010pkg.cfm.
8Kaiser Family Foundation, “The Role of Media in Childhood Obesity,” accessed Mar. 11, 2011, and available at www.kff.org/entmedia/upload/The-Role-Of-Media-in-Childhood-Obesity.pdf.
9Virginia Cooperative Extension, “Kids, Food, and Electronic Media,” accessed Mar. 11, 2011, and available at http://pubs.ext.vt.edu/348/348-008/348-008.html.
10 William H. Dietz, Jr., and Steven L. Gortmaker, “Do We Fatten Our Children at the Television Set? Obesity and Television Viewing in Children and Adolescents,” accessed Mar. 11, 2011, and abstract available at http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/cgi/content/abstract/
11 Carlos J. Crespo, Ellen Smit, Richard P. Troiano, Susan J. Bartlett, Caroline A. Macera, and Ross E. Andersen, “Television Watching, Energy Intake, and Obesity in U.S. Children: Results From the Third National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, 1988-1994,” accessed Mar. 11, 2011, and available at http://archpedi.ama-assn.org/cgi/reprint/155/3/360.pdf.
12 Lu Shi and Yuping Mao, “Excessive Recreational Computer use and Food Consumption Behavior Among Adolescents,” Italian Journal of Pediatrics 36, no. 52 (published online August 2010).
13 Shirley A. Russ, Kandyce Larson, Todd Michael Franke, and Neal Halfon, “Associations Between Media Use and Health in U.S. Children,” Academic Pediatrics 9, no. 5 (September 2009); Macomb County Health Department, “Childhood Obesity, Inactivity, and Nutrition,” accessed Mar. 11, 2011, and available at www.macombcountymi.gov/publichealth/hpdc/HKHF_obesity_nutrition_inactivity.htm.
14 Elizabeth A. Vandewater, Mi-suk Shim, and Allison G. Caplovitz, “Linking obesity and Activity Level With Children’s Television and Video Game use,” Journal of Adolescence 27 (2004): 71-85, accessed Mar. 11, 2011, and available at http://medi506.pbworks.com/f/sdarticle-3.pdf.
Fred Hardinge, Dr. P.H., is an associate director of the General Conference Health Ministries Department; Allan R. Handysides, M.D., is director of the General Conference Health Ministries Department; Gary L. Hopkins, M.D., Dr. P.H., is an associate director of the General Conference Health Ministries Department, and research professor for the department of behavioral science at Andrews University; Duane McBride, Ph.D., is professor and chair of the department of behavioral science, and executive director of the Institute for Prevention of addictions at Andrews University. This article was published October 27, 2011.