Mindless snacking in front of the television may start long before children know how to work the remote control, a U.S. study suggests.
In an experiment with 60 kids aged 2 to 5 years, researchers focused on how advertising influences eating in the absence of hunger.
They gave all the children a healthy snack to make sure they had a full tummy, and then sat the kids down to watch a TV program with ads for Bugles corn chips or for a department store.
All of the kids had Bugles corn chips and one other snack in front of them while they watched the show. Children who saw ads for the corn chips ate 127 calories on average, compared to just 97 calories for kids who didn’t see Bugles on the screen.
This is the first study to show that exposure to food ads cues immediate eating among younger children - even after they had a filling snack,” said lead study author from the Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire.
Young children average up to three hours of TV viewing a day. If kids are exposed to food ads during that time, they may unconsciously overconsume snacks which could lead to excess weight gain.
Screen time limits for children
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends against any screen time for children younger than 18 months and suggests no more than an hour a day for kids aged 2 to 5 in part to encourage language development, support healthy sleep habits and limit sedentary activity that can set preschoolers on a path toward obesity.
The type of TV program matters too. The AAP encourages educational programming like “Sesame Street” that can support language learning.
About the study
For the experiment, researchers sat kids down to watch a 14-minute segment of “Elmo’s World” that included three minutes of advertising.
Before the show started, all of the kids could snack as much as they liked on banana, sliced cheese and crackers. They also got water to drink.
Children were randomly assigned to view ads for national department stores or to watch Bugles spots that showed kids playing and eating the corn chips.
While the shows played, kids were given bowls of Nabisco Teddy Grahams and Bugles corn snacks.
One limitation of the experiment is that it included mostly white, affluent rural kids, which may make the results less relevant to the broader population of U.S. children.
Young children can also be unreliable when they tell adults whether they are full, so it’s possible some children who claimed they had enough to eat before watching TV were actually hungry.
Even so, the findings should give parents another reason to limit children’s exposure to media that comes with advertising.
Experts advise parents to pay attention to how product placement occurs in the television programs or other media their young children may be watching.
Age 2 may be too young to understand how ads can influence behavior, Lumeng noted.
Source: Pediatrics, online November 21, 2016.
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