We’re fortunate enough to have a guest post today from Dr. George Drinka, child psychiatrist and author. Dr. Drinka’s upcoming book, When the Media Is the Parent, is posed to educate parents about the massive role media (think television, video games, and the Internet).
Today, he’s talking with us about the role media plays in childhood obesity, fast food advertising geared toward children, and how, in time, the media might even help promote healthier eating.
Two recent articles document a troubling childhood trend. In the US, one third of all children are obese or over-weight. Meanwhile, in Chile one quarter of all kids are now obese. In short, the trend toward childhood obesity has gone worldwide.
The causes involve a medley of factors, but perhaps the most central seems kids eating junk food in abundance. This means high caloric, fatty, sweet and salty dishes, consumed by kids to their heart’s content. A bad pun indeed, since the risk of heart disease in obese children is a specific source of worry.
Since most kids watch a lot of TV, they are manipulated by fun commercials that market much of this unhealthy fare. For instance, a 2006 study by the Center for Science in the Public Interest found that 88% of food ads on the Nickelodeon channel feature unhealthy foods. Naturally, these commercials work marvelously well. Why else would the fast food companies keep making them?
But kids are not aware of this unhealthy reality and so they daily clamor for these foods, wearing down their frazzled parent. Parents may have glimmers of insight into the problem, but they’re distracted by their rapid paced lives and rely on the fast food to get sustenance on the table.
The two articles [linked above] document divergent approaches to turning the tide on this trend. In the US, where we favor a free enterprise approach, Birds Eye Food is working with the Partnership for a Healthier America on developing TV ads on kids TV to encourage them to eat vegetables. The idea is to make vegetables seem very, very tasty. But the question is whether a chaste carrot can go toe to toe with a greasy French fry and come out on top.
Meanwhile, in Chile the government has legislated regulations that ban the packaging of glittery toys, usually ones associated with TV shows and film characters, with fast foods. The idea is that, once the cheap toys are removed from their pairing with the unhealthy food, kids will clamor of the food less eagerly.
These two approaches—free market driven and government regulated—seem the only ones imaginable now. Yet both seem fraught with pitfalls. In Chile, McDonalds and other fast food conglomerates are refusing to comply with the law and fighting back in court. Since these companies are very rich, they can hire the best attorneys. In terms of Birds Eye, we are seeing a small dent in a massive problem and a core causal agent–TV advertising unhealthy foods. Is such a meager approach just cosmetic? Is this healthy food advertisement really an attempt of one large company, Birds Eye, to steal market share from others like McDonalds?
I suggest that over time, after much legal wrangling, and the making of a handful of commercials to present healthy food as desirable, a generation or two will pass, and the battle lines will grow crystal clear. Like tobacco addiction and alcohol abuse, or perhaps even like gun deaths, the public alarm will grow more and more strident. The issue will pass from being framed as a discussion over free enterprise and free speech into being perceived as a serious public health threat. Fast food advertising to kids will need serious regulation, but not before we have witnessed many human beings suffering severe disabilities and even unnecessary deaths.
George Drinka, M.D. is on the clinical faculty of the Oregon Health Sciences University and in private practice in Portland, Oregon. He has published book reviews in the peer-reviewed Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association. He has also written for the New York Times Book Review.