Here are some factoids on children and television and advertising:
- American children, ages 2-17, watch television on average almost 25 hours per week or 3 ½ hours a day. Almost one in five watch more than 44 hours of TV each week (Gentile & Walsh, 2002).
- Television is the top after school activity chosen by children ages 6 to 17 (Center for Media Education, 1997).
- 28% of children’s television shows contain four or more acts of violence (Woodward, 1999).
- One in five E/I (educational/informational) designated children’s programs was found to have little or no educational value (Woodward, 1999).
- Nearly 16 minutes of advertising is found in an average hour of prime time television (Minneapolis Star Tribune, 1999).
- Twenty percent of 2- to 7-year-olds, 46% of 8- to 12-year-olds, and 56% of 13- to 17-year-olds have TVs in their bedrooms (Gentile & Walsh, 2002).
- The average American child may view as many as 40,000 television commercials every year (Strasburger, 2001).
- Young children are not able to distinguish between commercials and TV programs. They do not recognize that commercials are trying to sell something (Comstock, 1991).
- In 2001, teenagers, ages twelve to nineteen spent $172 billion (an average of $104 per teen each week), up 11 percent from $155 billion in 2000 (Teen Research Unlimited, 2002).
- In 1997, $1.3 billion was spent on television advertisements directed at children. Counting all media, advertising and marketing budgets aimed at children approached $12 billion (McNeal, 1999).
- Children who watch a lot of television, want more toys seen in advertisements and eat more advertised food than children who do not watch as much television (Strasburger, 2002).
[These factoids courtesy of the National Institute on Media and the Family, about whom I will have more to say.]
What harm does all that exposure to commercialized mass culture do? A lot of the attention in recent years has focused on that new panic topic, childhood obesity, and the perennial favorite for years now, violence.
(Let me be clear. Childhood obesity is a real problem, and is clearly getting worse. However, the way it is talked about also fits it into a long history of moral panics around children, and this distorts the way it is addressed and thought of, and how public policy is formed to address the actual problem. Children and sex – kiddie porn, kids’ access to porn on the internet, and teen and pre-teen promiscuity – is the big, obvious moral panic of recent years. It’s interesting, though a topic for another time and place, that these moral panics both concern the body, children and their bodies.)
As the last of the above factoids indicates, TV advertising for fast food (McDonald’s, KFC, etc.) and junk food (like the highly sweetened breakfast cereals of the previous post) plays a real role in this epidemic of childhood obesity. And, as The Washington Post reported earlier this month, a recent study found that “[j]unk food ads account for two-thirds of televised advertisements for food that are shown when children are likely to be watching.”
But, as I indicated before, citing Schor’s excellent Born to Buy, TV is only a part of the problem. For instance, a number of recent studies have shown that the proximity of fast food restaurants to schools is clearly linked to obesity in children. Here are the blunt and damning summary results from one such study, just published in the American Journal of Public Health:
We found that students with fast-food restaurants near (within one half mile of) their schools (1) consumed fewer servings of fruits and vegetables, (2) consumed more servings of soda, and (3) were more likely to be overweight… or obese…than were youths whose schools were not near fast-food restaurants.
This is particularly alarming when combined with other studies that have shown that fast-food restaurants are intentionally clustered around public schools. A report from 2005, also published in the American Journal of Public Health, found that
almost 80 percent of schools had at least one fast-food restaurant within less than a half mile. Fast-food restaurants were statistically significantly clustered in areas within a short walking distance from schools, with an estimated 3 to 4 times as many fast-food restaurants within one mile from schools than would be expected if the restaurants were distributed throughout the city in a way unrelated to school locations. [more]
What the report found, in other words, was a clear pattern of fast food restaurants deliberately locating themselves near schools. This is exactly the sort of thing the Schor highlights in her book, about the various and insidious ways in which our commercial culture pursues kids as a key market segment – for money. But the link to health and other problems, like childhood obesity, makes this all quite sinister – not just something for anti-globalization ratbags to be concerned with – and authorities are starting to take note.
The New York Times reports that a study in New York City which found an increased obesity rate of at least 5.2 percent among teenagers at schools where fast-food outlets nearby prompted Eric N. Gioia, a city councilman from Queens, to launch an effort to ban fast food restaurants from opening close to schools. As Gioia put it, apparently exasperated at resistance to his proposal:“If we’re not willing to move harmful substances away just one block, what are we willing to do?”
(As a side note, if you read the article, note at the end where the executive director of the Center for Consumer Freedom, which is really a PR front for the fast food industry, says there’s no linkage between fast food outlets and obesity. To its credit, the NY Times follows that, and concludes the article, with a response from the authors of the National Bureau of Economic Research study: “We looked at restaurants that open beside a school and whether that changes the fraction of students that are overweight,” said Janet Currie, chairwoman of the economics department at Columbia University. “And it does.” It’s rare for a mainsream media outlet to be quite so explicit about rebutting the lying PR spin put out by groups like the Center for Consumer Freedom. Most refreshing.)
The demonstrable link between fast food and obesity is likely to become more of a problem during the current economic crisis. A recent study by UC Berkeley economists confirmed the impact of fast food outlets near schools, and also argued that “while the current weak economy may slow the near-term expansion of fast food operations, many experts expect most fast food firms will follow McDonald’s, reporting hefty earnings as cash-strapped consumers seek out cheap eats.”
The researchers also speculated on some of the reasons behind the linkage of fast food outlets near schools to obesity. As one of the economists put it, “If you look out the window from your classroom and see a fast food place, it’s kind of tempting to go over there.” As the report explained, “fast foods increases obesity by lowering food prices or by tempting consumers with self-control problems.”
Attempts to restrict fast food outlets near schools follow on from earlier, largely successful efforts to ban soft drink vending machines in high schools, which were similarly linked to obesity. More recently, these efforts have expanded to address the problem of nominally “fruit” drinks in school cafeterias that contain large amounts of sugary substances such as high fructose corn syrup. (These efforts are being resisted by industry groups, supported in part by the Center for Consumer Freedom.)