While the potential association between TV advertising and obesity among children has been widely investigated, there is very little research investigating the appearance of junk and sugary food in children’s programmes.
Dr Steingerður Ólafsdóttir at the University of Gothenburg has produced a thesis analysing the TV screen time of children aged 2-9 years old to see if there is any link to their consumption of high-calorie and low-nutrient foods (particularly sweetened beverages).
“Several theories have been proposed to explain the association between screens and obesity, including sedentary behaviour, eating while viewing and exposure to commercials," explained Ólafsdóttir.
"Some aspects of the association between TV viewing and food habits ... have received less attention than others, including the effects of children’s TV programmes.”
Her research is part of the wider European research project - Identification and Prevention of Dietary and Lifestyle-induced Health Effects in Children and Infants (IDEFICS) – which is investigating diet, social determinants and lifestyle factors in 2 to 10 year olds.
The analysis focused on popular Swedish TV programme Bolibompa, watched by an average 45% of 2-9 years. The format of the show includes a mixture of children’s programmes introduced by presenters who fill the gaps between emissions with games and discussions. Data was analysed over a five month period and from 25 hours of material.
Results indicate children’s TV viewing and total screen time is associated with increased sweet drink consumption, Body Mass Index (BMI) and waist to height ratio.
“Bolibompa is a quality show that has a long tradition in Sweden, it is popular and well-known and is aired in a commercial-free, public service channel," said Ólafsdóttir.
"I found it quite surprising that the high-calorie and low-nutrient foods appeared more often with children than adults and in active situations in comparison with other foods."
"Fruit and vegetables were shown frequently in the show but were often in the background," she added.
High calorie viewing
On average, one out of every five food product displayed was high in calories and low in nutrients, such as biscuits, sweets and ice cream, and children whose parents did not limit their exposure to television were twice as likely to regularly consume sweet beverages compared with other kids.
“This means that it may be possible to influence children’s eating habits via their TV habits. I think that there is a potential for a more health promoting approach in the production of TV shows for children,” said the researcher.
There were some noticeable gender differences with boys consuming more sweetened beverages at least one to three times per week than girls and boys also spent more time watching screens, including television, she said.
The likelihood of drinking sweetened beverages at least weekly increased by 50% for each hour a day spent watching TV and more than double when parents did not or only partly attempted to limit exposure to TV commercials, as compared to limiting the exposure completely.
Ólafsdóttir concluded: “I hope this research increases awareness on how food and beverage appears in children’s TV programmes. It shows how television can have an effect on eating habits and I think that it would be very helpful for parents if some shows could make an effort to educate children about healthy eating.”