Is TV to Blame for the Childhood Obesity Problem?

A photo of a boy eating potato chips while watching TV.
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TV and childhood obesity are responsible for the most serious health crisis facing today's young people, some doctors argue. Decide for yourself whether television should be blamed for the dietary and activity choices that children make.

TV and Childhood Obesity: The Claim

Pediatricians say all you have to do is check the facts linking children's TV habits to obesity to see why television is such a danger.

They say less TV leads kids to come up with other ways to occupy their time, such as playing outdoors.

Health experts say television presents two problems for children. One, the time spent on the couch isn't spent exercising. Two, TV exposes them to advertising for sugary and fatty foods, which damages their diets. Pediatricians say children should watch less than two hours of TV a day, instead of the three hours they average.

The Evidence

A scan of childhood obesity statistics can be troubling for parents, doctors and even those who work in media. The National Institutes of Health says of more than a dozen industrialized nations, U.S. children are the most likely to be fat.

The experts say that can set up today's kids for a lifetime of health problems. They include diabetes and heart disease, which you might expect, but also depression and other mental disorders.

That's why they say the TV must be turned off.

That way, children exercise more and eat less.

The Counterclaim

Consider 4 myths about childhood obesity before drawing a quick conclusion. You may decide there are more causes than just television.

Some video games actually encourage exercise. That's beneficial for those bad-weather days when kids can't go outside.

Parents can develop children's healthy habits using TV as a motivator.

For children who are turned off by organized exercise or joining sports teams, simply playing can burn calories and promote muscle growth. They can act out what they may see on TV, even mindless cartoons.

As for those commercials for greasy fast food or sugar-coated cereals, you might be surprised by a Federal Trade Commission comparison of children's TV ads between 1977 and today.

The TV landscape has changed dramatically in that time. The big three broadcasting networks have since been joined by cable TV channels aimed squarely at children -- like Nickelodeon or The Disney Channel.

But even with those extra choices, the study shows today's children ages 2-11 watch an average of two-and-a-quarter hours of ad-supported television a day, teens about two-and-a-half hours. The study shows adults watch a whopping four-and-a-quarter hours a day. So, those in media might argue it's the adults who need to cut back on TV to get exercise.

The pediatricians who say children should watch no more than two hours of TV a day have nearly gotten their wish, if the FTC's numbers above are correct. It's optimistic to think that cutting that 15 to 30 minutes that they exceed the average would really change their health.

The FTC report has another surprising finding. It shows kids' exposure to food ads on TV has dropped about 9% from 1977 to 2004. While the report points out that the food ads children see today don't support a balanced diet, that was also true in 1977, prior to the children's obesity problem.

The Bottom Line

There's no argument that today's children are more likely to be obese than the children of their parents' or grandparents' generation. The question is whether TV is receiving too much of the blame.

Media pros who bristle at criticism would say parents need to take a more active role in their children's lives. A child will often flip on the TV when there's nothing else to do or no one to talk to. But they also might flip on a computer or a cell phone to pass the time. Avid book readers also fall into the dangers of sedentary lifestyles, but no one wants to point the finger at public libraries.

Children's diets should be monitored to make sure they include a variety of foods. But even if a five-year-old is begging to go to McDonald's, parents can make fast food choices that are lower in calories and fat. There's the added benefit of letting children climb on the playground equipment that many fast food restaurants provide.

You'll likely discover that television can share the blame for childhood obesity, at least in the homes of some children. There is a range of factors beyond TV that can contribute to this national health problem.