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  Does Excessive Television Viewing Lead to Obesity in Children?



                                                                                    Jennifer Nichols




General Pros and Cons of Television                                                                                          




Like many adults, children find that television is a wonderful way to relax.  It is entertaining and educational.  Television gives children the chance to escape into a fantasy world or learn about places, people and things that they might otherwise be unfamiliar with.  Yet, despite these wonderful opportunities, television may have a negative impact on a child’s health.    If you picture the popular image of a ”couch potato,” one often visualizes a person slumped in a chair, eating snack foods and drinking sweetened beverages.  Thus, watching television can easily be viewed as an unhealthy pastime.   Studies have cited that the average child or adolescent watches an average of 3 hours of television per day.  When including other television-type media, such as video games and videotapes, this average increases to about 6.5 hours per day (Committee on Public Education, 2001).   It would, therefore, appear that a child who keeps a poor diet and remains in sedentary positions for extended periods of time will be more likely to become obese.  




As cited by Jan Van den Bulck (2000), there are five major potential health effects that may be related to watching television.  Unhealthy behaviors such as snacking and drinking high calorie soft drinks are often an essential part of the viewing experience for many.  Also, television can directly change a family’s eating habits by planning meal times around their favorite show.  Families that are too engrossed in their shows to cook will often settle for nutrient-lacking microwave dinners or take-out.  In addition, physical activity often disappears while the television set is turned on.  Thus, television displaces other leisure activities that may be more beneficial.  This inactivity leads to ineffective energy expenditure, the burning of calories.  Lastly, television content can affect a person’s eating habits.  Even though television often portrays an idealized body image, particularly in women, those who sit by the hour will most likely achieve the opposite effect. 


The Studies Have Shown....                                                                


Various research has been done studying genetic factors in obesity.  Yet research regarding individual development factors, such as television viewing habits, has been lacking.   Studies over the past few years began to analyze what effects, if any, television has on a child’s weight difficulties.  Overweight is often defined by the age and sex-specific 95th percentile of the body mass index.  BMI values between the 85th and 95th percentiles are considered an area of concern, where there is an increased level of becoming overweight (Troiano and Flegal, 1998). 


When Van den Bulck tested his five potential health effects on 1035 fifth and sixth graders, his results clearly indicated television’s damaging effects.  The participants were asked to rank how often they watched TV, and how often they ate snacks, sweets, or candy while watching.  Over 41% of the families he studied reported changing their mealtime due to a television show.    About one-forth of the children in the sample hardly exercised.  Girls in the sample gained more body mass than those who refrained from sugary sweets.  In all, this study shows some merit for a television and obesity connection. 


The connection was furthered through a randomized controlled school-based trial performed in September 1996- April 1997.  Two California schools, matched in socioeconomic status and scholastic achievement, were chosen to participate.  192 third and forth graders were involved.  One school, the experimental group, was assigned 18 lessons over the 6 months.  Such classroom curriculum changes were intended to reduce television, videotape, and video game usage. Basic height, weight, and BMI measurements were taken at the start of the program.  Parents reported the physical activity, diet, and behavior of their children before and after.  Results showed that compared with the control students, those with the lessons had statistically significant decreases in body mass index.   These children decreased their television viewing time by about one-third, as well as the number of meals eaten in front of the TV.  It is clear that this study had a strong methodology.  Similar samples allowed for more reliable and valid results.  These children were able to learn from the program, finding more active and healthy ways to spend their free time  (Robinson, 1999).




Another study, performed by Roberts (2000), discusses the incidence of decreased habitual physical activity, increased television viewing, increased energy intake and decreased energy expenditure.  In order to maintain ideal body weight,  energy that a child consumes must equal his or her energy output.  Since television often lowers expenditure, Roberts cites a study done by Mo-suwan, Pongprapai, Junjana & Puetpaiboon in which 292 kindergarten girls were enrolled in a school exercise program.  Physical activity for 35 minutes, 3 times a week  for 30 weeks, was able to lower the likelihood of high body mass.  





The Influence of Television Commercials  


Sitting for hours at a time is not the only unhealthy part of watching television.  The advertisements which are aired on the tube can have negative effects on a child’s well-being.  As stated in an article written by Birch and Fisher (1998), “The most familiar and preferred foods in childhood tend to combine these two principle ingredients: sugar and fat.”  Food preferences are therefore an important determinant of a child’s food intake.  The child’s peers and adult mentors may influence these eating habits.  The television definitely influences all of their lives.   Although few studies have looked at television as it affects a child’s food preference, intake and adiposity, some observations can be made.  In a content analysis performed by Cotugna in 1987, 80% of the television commercials in a 12-hour period showed foods low in nutritional value and high in sugars.   Often, a child’s request for food matched the items advertised.


Advertisements for unhealthy diets are not just a problem in the U.S.  A Canadian study found a high prevalence of low-nutrient beverages, snacks and candy.  A recent study preformed in New Zealand helps show this international concern. Wilson, Quigley, and Mansoor (1999) examined the nutritional value of television food advertisements that are targeted at children.  After videotaping 42 hours of children’s programming on a weekend morning, they found that 63% of the 269 food commercials were for foods high in fat and/or sugar.  14% of the ads were for fast food, while snack foods made up an overwhelming 76% of the commercial advertisements.  Although this study used a sample of only one television station, the strong findings indicate that similar results would be found if more stations would be used.


  Future Research: A Question of Causality



Although various studies have shown a relationship between television viewing and overeating, cross-sectional studies cannot always determine the direction of causality.  We may find that increased television viewing leads to increased overeating.  However, who is to say that overweight children don’t watch more television than their normal-weight friends?  More research must be performed.  The larger the sample sizes, the more information we are likely to gain.  In addition, longitudinal studies may operate best.  By following each child through adolescence, we will be able to truly observe his or her viewing habits, as well as his or her diet and activity while watching favorite shows.   Until such research is finished, parents should follow some recommended guidelines made by pediatricians (Committee on Public Education, 2001).


1)    Limit television time (and other entertainment media) to no more than 2 hours of quality programming per day

2)    Remove televisions from a child’s bedroom

3)    Encourage alternative entertainment such as reading, athletics, hobbies and creative play          


These guidelines will limit a child’s snacking while watching television, as well as promote activities which will decrease the likelihood of obesity at that time or in the future.  A proper TV diet rich in fruits and vegetables would also contribute to a lower risk of obesity.







Birch, L.L. and Fisher, J.O. (1998). Development of eating behaviors among children and adolescents.  Pediatrics 101:539-549.


Bulck, J.V.D. (2000).  Is television bad for your health? Behavior and body image of the adolescent “couch potato.”  Journal of Youth and Adolescence 29(3): 273-288.


Committee on Public Education (2001).  Children, adolescents, and television.  Pediatrics  107: 423-426.


Cotugna, N. (1988).  TV ads on Saturday morning chidren’s programming: what’s new? Journal of Nutrition and Education  20: 125-127.


Roberts, S.O. (2000).  The role of physical activity in the prevention and treatment of childhood obesity. Pediatric Nursing 26(1): 33-53.


Robinson, T.N. (1999).  Reducing children’s television viewing to prevent obesity.  Journal of the American Medical Association 282(16): 1561-1567.


Troiano, R.P. and Flegal, K.M. (1998).  Overweight children and adolescents.  Pediatrics 101: 497-504.


Wilson, N., Quigley, R., and Mansoor, O. (1999).  Food ads on TV: A health hazard for children?  Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health  23(6): 647-650.


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