Children have a special relationship with television. Even as many children transition to tablet watching instead of network programming, children generally have some exposure to network programming and its commercials. Moreover, even newer forms of programming, such as YouTube, have commercials, and parents can be sure that those commercials are even more targeted to their audience, and thus, have an even greater effect. However, the data is not as extensive for those medium, so here we will focus on television, but the concerns raised here likely still apply.
In 2006, a report from the Institute of Medicine estimated that children are exposed to approximately 10, 000 food commercials per year. Most of the commercials aired during children’s programming are for unhealthy foods and snacks. An analysis from 2007 found that 98% of the food commercials viewed by children 2 to 11 and 89% of commercials viewed by children 12 to 19 were for foods high in fat, sugar or sodium[i]. In the 1970s, it was estimated that children see approximately 20,000 commercials per year, and in the 1990s, this number doubled. Researchers believe that this is because children are able to spend money given to them by parents on food, and children these days have more influence over what their parents buy. In 2004, this influence was estimated at $200 Billion per year[ii]. At this point, the link between television viewing and poor eating habits has been clearly established. For example, it has been found that even a 10 to 30 second commercial shown to a 2 to 6 year old child, can influence their preference for the food shown, and this effect doubles after a second exposure to the same commercial[iii]. In order for parents to fight against this strong source of influence, they need to understand what exactly causes this relationship.
First, parents need to understand that children pay attention to and remember the commercials they see, especially when the commercials are for food. One study found that when commercials for toys and food were compared, children remembered the food commercials better[iv]. Other research has found that when children are exposed to a commercial for a snack, it increases the children’s preference for this food and increases how often they ask their parents for it[v]. Children also perceived advertised food as more tasty and cool[vi]. This is a very explicit process of influence. Thus, all the parent has to do is not give in to the child’s request for the particular advertised food. This seems clear enough, and most parents may believe that this represents the extent of the problem. Unfortunately, the affects are much more profound though obscure.
One study found that children who watched a cartoon with commercials for food as compared to children who watched the same cartoon with commercials for non-food items during the program ate almost 9grams more. The authors extrapolated that at that rate, the children who viewed television with food commercials for thirty minutes per day would experience a weight gain of 10 pounds over one year[vii]. To make matters worse, viewing extensive food advertisement prompts children to eat unhealthier food across the board. For example, one study found that when compared to children who viewed commercials for toys, those who viewed commercials for food selected more high-carbohydrate and more high-fat foods than those children who saw the toy commercials. The foods they selected were not branded and were not necessarily even similar to those presented in the commercials[viii]. The effect was the strongest for those children who watched a lot of television outside of the study; this groups of children was found to be the most susceptible to the effects of advertising. Another study expanded on this idea and found that viewing food commercials increased children’s eating of all available food. Not only did those children eat more, but they also ate for a longer period of time. The level of hunger did not predict how much the children ate. Interesting, the children in this study were also more likely to eat healthy snacks after viewing the commercials. This led the researchers to theorize that commercials increased the likelihood of eating anything and everything. Moreover, this effect continued to be seen as far as the next meal[ix]. Due to this strong influence, parents need to be mindful of the kinds of foods and how much food the child has access to during TV time and for some time after. For example, a rule may be established that says that the child is only allowed to eat one apple while watching television. The amount of food can be similarly limited after the end of the show.
A critical element of the problem is that children, especially very young once, do not understand that the purpose of advertisement is to get them to do something, and thus, they are less likely to be able to resist its influence[x]. Here again, the effect seems to be cyclical, with the children who were the most unhealthy eaters being least able to identify that the commercial’s purpose was to persuade. The unhealthy eaters also identified the advertised foods as more nutritious and healthier. In another study, children who watched a lot of television reported that meals from fast food restaurants are as nutritious as those cooked at home[xi]. It is possible that children with unhealthy habits have less knowledge about what healthy food looks like and therefore are more influenced by the commercials they see. Thus, to mitigate this effect, parents not only need to establish healthy eating habits for their children but need to explicitly explain what makes a food healthy versus unhealthy, so that children have information to base their decisions on.
In addition to the problems caused by commercials, the food and eating patterns displayed on television further exacerbate the problem. Characters on television rarely eat because they are hungry, but instead they eat because they are socializing or to address an emotional need[xii]. Moreover, they do not eat meals, instead they usually snack on unhealthy snacks and drink soda or alcohol instead of water. Despite these behaviors, characters remain slim, fit and, most importantly, healthy. Rarely does one see a television character suffer an illness due to their poor eating habits[xiii].
For young children television characters do not remain only inside the TV, but they come into the child’s world. They enter in the form of branded merchandise. In a similar way that a Disney character can make a t-shirt more “attractive,” it can make a food “taste better.” For instance, it was found that 4 to 6 year olds reported that the same gummy bears and graham crackers tasted better when they had a character on the package[xiv]. Interestingly, the appeal of carrots was not improved by the presence of a character. Furthermore, a branded healthy snack was still not as appealing as an unbranded unhealthy snack. However, children were more willing to try healthy snacks that were branded with a favorite character[xv]. This finding can be useful to a parent who is trying to diversify the child’s diet.
When “pronutritional” messages are aired on television to combat the barrage of sugary snacks and salty foods, this massaging does not look as professional or as attractive, which results in them having less impact[xvi]. Furthermore, even when segments are designed specifically to deliver nutritional messages, they do not appear powerful enough to change children’s pattern of consumption even though the children confirmed learning the nutritional information.[xvii] The authors concluded that consumption is driven by more factors than just information regarding nutrition and health. This was supported by findings that children who ate in the presence of peers, and the peers displayed behavior in line with TV commercials, the effect of the commercials was very strong. However, if the children ate with a peer who ate differently than suggested by the commercial, the effect of the commercial was decreased[xviii]. Thus, it is critical to expose children to peers who eat healthy and discuss with the children why their peer’s choices are better than the ones they see on TV. Moreover, watching pronutrious programming can provide children with the skills needed to evaluate what constitutes a healthy snack and what does not.
“So, what now?” you may ask. What can parents do in the face of such powerful influence other than prevent their child from watching all television programming. Although that is by far the most impactful strategy, it is probably an unrealistic one for most parents. However, a parent can substitute some television watching with programming that is devoid of commercials. However, even more important is to understand that although television may affect preference and make it more likely that children eat the wrong thing and lots of it, the parents still have the ultimate control. So, your child may prefer to eat only Oreo cookies for every meal, but if such meals are not made available, the child will have to accept alternatives. The critical thing to realize is that the effects of television are much more far-reaching than most people think, and thus, every way that television exerts its influence needs to be addressed, from teaching children how to decide whether something is nutritious to imposing portion control after television watching to prevent the tendency for the child to overeat. With this level of diligence parents can regain their rightful control over the development of their children’s food habits.
[i] Powell, L. M., Szczypka, G., Chaloupka, F. J. & Braunschweig, C. L. (2007) Nutritional Content of Television Food Advertisements Seen by Children and Adolescents in the United States. Pediatrics, 120(30),
[ii] Caroli, M., Argentieri, L. Cardone, M. & Masi, A. (2004). Role of Television in Childhood Obesity Prevention. International Journal of Obesity, 28, S104-S108.
[iii] Caroli, M., Argentieri, L. Cardone, M. & Masi, A. (2004). Role of Television in Childhood Obesity Prevention. International Journal of Obesity, 28, S104-S108.
[iv] Boyland, E. J., Harrold, J. A., Kirkham, T. C., Corker, C., et al. (2011). Food Commercials Increase Preference for Energy-Dense Foods, Particularly in cCHildren Who Watch More Television. Pediatrics, 128(1), e93-e100.
[v] Williams, L. K., Veitch, J. & Ball, K. (2011). What Helps Children Eat Well? A Qualitative Exploration of Resilience Among Disadvantaged Families. Health Education Research, 26(2), 296-307.
[vi] Lioutass, E. D. & Tzimitra-Kalogianni, I. (2014) “I Saw Santa Drinking Soda!” Advertising and Children’s Food Preferences. Child: Care, Health and Development, 41(3), 424-433.
[vii] Harris, J. L., Bargh, J. A. & Brownell, K. D. (2009). Priming Effects of Television Food Advertising on Eating Behavior. Health Psychology, 28(4), 404-413.
[viii] Boyland, E. J., Harrold, J. A., Kirkham, T. C., Corker, C., et al. (2011). Food Commercials Increase Preference for Energy-Dense Foods, Particularly in cCHildren Who Watch More Television. Pediatrics, 128(1), e93-e100.
[ix] Harris, J. L., Bargh, J. A. & Brownell, K. D. (2009). Priming Effects of Television Food Advertising on Eating Behavior. Health Psychology, 28(4), 404-413.
[x] Lioutass, E. D. & Tzimitra-Kalogianni, I. (2014) “I Saw Santa Drinking Soda!” Advertising and Children’s Food Preferences. Child: Care, Health and Development, 41(3), 424-433.
[xi] Signorielli, N. & Lears, M. (1992). Television and Children’s Conceptions of Nutrition: Unhealthy Messages. Health Communication, 4(4), 245-257.
[xii] Signorielli, N. & Lears, M. (1992). Television and Children’s Conceptions of Nutrition: Unhealthy Messages. Health Communication, 4(4), 245-257.
[xiii] Caroli, M., Argentieri, L. Cardone, M. & Masi, A. (2004). Role of Television in Childhood Obesity Prevention. International Journal of Obesity, 28, S104-S108.
[xiv] Roberto, C. A., Baik, J., Harris, J. L. & Brownell, K. D. (2010). Influence of Licensed Characters on Children’s Tst and Snack Preferences. Pediatrics, 126, 88-93.
[xv] Kotler, J. A., Schiffman, J. M. & Hanson, K. G. (2012). The Influence of Media Characters on Children’s Food Choices. Journal of Health Communication, 17, 886-898.
[xvi] Signorielli, N. & Lears, M. (1992). Television and Children’s Conceptions of Nutrition: Unhealthy Messages. Health Communication, 4(4), 245-257.
[xvii] Peterson, P. E., Balfour, J., Bridgwater, C. A. & Dawson, B. (1984) How Pronutrition Television Programming Affects Children’s Dietary Habits. Developmental Psychology, 20(1), 55-63.
[xviii] Stoneman, Z. & Brody, G. H. (1981). Peers as Mediators of Television Food Advertisements Aimed at Children. Developmental Psychology, 17(6/), 853-858.