It isn't earth-shattering news to point out that we live in a world of screens, and that children are now not only accustomed to their presence, but have
developed an intuitive and intense relationship with all forms of visual media. What's less clear is how these trends will affect long-term development -
and whether the ubiquity of TV, computer screens, and portable devices is good, bad, or somewhere in between.
Two new studies published this week attempt to unpack aspects of the relationship between cultural attitudes toward TV, and how they might affect some of our
most at-risk youth: children in low-income, minority households, who are suffering academically, socially, and physically.
Obesity and the Risk of Too Much Screen Time
Something is going on with our children. Childhood obesity has skyrocketed in
recent years. Formerly more or less a non-issue, nearly one in every five U.S. children is now classified as obese. And it's not just a cosmetic issue;
according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), children who are
obese are more likely than fit children to develop serious conditions like heart disease, type 2 diabetes, stroke, osteoarthritis, and even many types of
The reasons why are likely to be varied and complex, involving deeply ingrained cultural habits. But there are some emerging patterns, including the fact
that Mexican Americans are more likely to be obese than any other ethnic group. According to a 2012 National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) data brief, Hispanic youth (two to 19) are
39.1 percent likely to be overweight, compared to 27.9 percent of non-Hispanic white youth.
Mexican Americans typically come into the country with good dietary habits - but studies show that
as they get acculturated, they start sucking down the same fast food burgers and 32-ounce sodas as the rest of the country, only even worse. Frances
Fleming-Milici, Ph.D. of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University, led a team of researchers in an investigation of one prime suspect
in the changing dietary habits of this ethnic group: TV ads for junk food.
Their findings, published Monday in JAMA Pediatrics, are actually surprising. Hispanic children
have one-of-a-kind viewing habits: as bilinguals, they watch both Spanish- and English-language TV. And they watch a lot of it: Hispanic youths watch about
5 hours and 21 minutes of TV daily (vs. 3 hours and 36 minutes for white children), according to a 2010 survey. But they actually see fewer overall food advertisements
than you might think. That's because in any given hour of English-language TV, there are 7.6 food ads, while on Spanish-language TV, there's only two food
ads per hour.
However - and here's the rub - those two ads? Those two ads are most likely to be for fast food, candy, or breakfast cereal. And the youngest group - those
ages two to five - get it the worst. In fact, any given food ad that a toddler sees on Spanish-language TV has about a 30 percent chance of being for a
fast food joint, compared to only 22 percent on English-language TV.
What does it mean? Marketers have chosen their audience, and are targeting with laser-like accuracy.
"When there's a population that's increasing, and not currently using your product, that presents an opportunity," said Fleming-Milici. "When you look at
some of the campaigns and offerings for bilingual youth, there is a pattern there."
Purveyors of cheap and easy (and entirely unhealthy) food see these children as tools to get their typically low-income parents (25 percent of Hispanic
Americans are below the poverty level compared to the national percentage of
14.3) to cave and get dinner at McDonald's. It's cheap, and easy, and parents feel pressured -- a direct result and desired effect of all those targeted
"When kids see more [fast food] advertising, rates of obesity are higher," said Fleming-Milici. "Reducing exposure to advertising would be a good first
Fleming-Milici brought up an intellectual disconnect that arises in policy discussions of this issue. "A lot of the pushback about policy change is that
it's not advertising that effects kids, and that parents should be in charge of what kids eat," she said. "But if that's the case, companies should be
informing parents of their products, and not children."
In essence, if companies really, truly believe that parents are in charge of what their children consume, then why are they advertising to little children?
Changing Cultural Attitudes Toward Our TVs
To be fair, parents - and the entire cultural milieu of any given child - do play a role in fast food ad exposure.
Another study, led by Wanjiku Njoroge, M.D. of the University of Washington and the Seattle Children's Hospital,
attempted to uncover the cultural patterns of TV watching - how families of different ethnic groups perceived their TV time.
What Njoroge found was that ethnicity actually didn't affect TV time; but socioeconomic status (SES) clearly did. Children from families classified as low
income and low education tended to watch 272.7 more minutes per week than their baseline peers, according to the study published Monday in JAMA Pediatrics. As with most issues affecting children, it's not their fault.
Their parents' belief (or wishful thinking) in the educational and social value of TV was perhaps the single biggest factor uncovered as a source for too
much TV time: children whose parents expected positive effects from educational TV programs watched an average of 100 more minutes per week than those
whose parents did not, regardless of education and income levels. The problem is that low-income/low-educated parents are more likely to be in that
category. And it's not easy being a parent in that kind of environment.
"It is possible that the stressors faced by low SES parents are such that media plays a very important role in their young child's life. In the literature,
parents have stated how their child's time spent with media allows them to 'get things done,' 'keep the child entertained',' and "keep the child safe,'"
These parents are probably doing the best they can. And to be fair, they aren't entirely wrong in their choices.
"Television and technology writ large is seen as an accessible medium for parents to help their children get a jump-start in learning pre-academic skills,"
said Njoroge. "However, as with all things there is a detriment to early, sustained, developmentally inappropriate media use."
How they are watching matters also. Imagine this scenario: a child watches a TV show, and an ad for McDonalds comes on. The child gets excited - who
wouldn't want a happy meal complete with free toy? That's when a fork in the road shows itself: In scenario A, mom is watching with him, and she says "Hey
Junior, how about we have that spaghetti you love for dinner, and maybe we can get you a toy just like that for your birthday this year?" In scenario B,
the child is by himself and decides that fast food is the only option that will ever make him happy.
"I can't emphasize enough it is the context in addition to the content that makes all the difference," said Njoroge.
Context isn't easy, because socioeconomic status is not colorblind. Census data shows that African Americans and Hispanic Americans are less likely to have high school diplomas and college degrees, and are more likely to live in poverty. A 2009 survey by Zero to Three highlighted the fact that African American and
Hispanic parents have vastly different expectations of TV than parents from other ethnic groups, and, as a result, let their kids watch more TV -- data
confirmed by Njoroge's study. It's an SES issue, but it's also an issue of a deeply embedded belief system that needs to be addressed.
"One of the take home messages is that physicians, and other clinicians who work with families of young children when asking about early media viewing
should also ascertain parent's beliefs and attitudes about the programming so that recommendations can be tailored appropriately to each family," Njoroge
If we are ever to reach educational attainment and physical/mental health equality, it'll take community efforts and grassroots work from within, along
with strong policy stands based on real numbers -- and with eyes open to the fact that children in this country start at unequal ground.
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