Mass media a force for good (and bad) in childhood obesity, report says

By Will Chu

- Last updated on GMT

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©iStock
Strong links between European obesity levels and childhood media exposure are further emphasised in a report that calls on better defined policies to address the rise of social media.

The report calls on the cooperation of parents, teachers, healthcare providers and legislators to curb the current obesity epidemic that is blighting childhood and adolescence throughout Europe.

"Parents should limit TV viewing and the use of computers and similar devices to no more than 1.5 hours a day and only if the child is older than four years of age,”​ said senior review author Dr. Adamos Hadjipanayis, of the European Academy of Paediatrics.

“Moreover, paediatricians should inform parents about the general risk that mass media use poses to their children's cognitive and physical development."

The European Academy of Paediatrics and the European Childhood Obesity Group—the task force heading up this report—also highlighted how mass media could be used responsibly to promote children's health.

UK government advisory body Public Health England’s (PHE) Change4Life initiative is offering a smartphone app​ that aids consumers in calculating sugar content in everyday food and drink.

The app works by scanning the barcode of products and revealing the amount of total sugar it contains in cubes and grams.

Likewise, the pressure group Consensus Action on Salt (CASH), have made available its free smartphone app FoodSwitch, that uses a database of nutrition data for over 100,000 food and drinks available in major UK supermarkets.

Consumers can scan the product barcode to receive ‘traffic light’ colour-coded nutritional information. The app then recommends similar, yet healthier, alternatives that users can further filter down for different nutrients, including salt, sugar or saturated fat.

Communication is key

The report’s author’s recommended families play a role in developing children’s abilities to filter information, analyse it critically and discuss the meaning of the information provided.

Parents were also advised not to allow children to have mass media devices in their bedrooms, especially TVs, or allow them unlimited access to the Internet.

Paediatricians were also advised to encourage families to discuss Internet use and directly supervise online activities rather than using parental controls or spying applications, which were considered less effective.

A further recommendation also delved into preventive and educational programmes that enhance children’s understanding and raise their awareness about using mass media.

The issue of social media’s role in advertising unhealthy foods to children is one that The Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP) has taken steps to address.

Here, the self-regulatory body, ban adverts for food and drinks high in fat, salt and sugar (HFSS) targeted at child on non-broadcast media that includes social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter.

The regulations are relevant to all media where children make up a quarter of the audience.

‘Old’ and ‘new’ media

Combined with ‘old’ media channels such as TV and film, it is estimated that every child in a Western country watches about 40,000 commercials each year, of which approximately 4,500–7,500 are advertisements for unhealthy foods.

More worryingly, the report cites data from Europe and the United States that show advertisers are targeting children of increasingly younger age to establish brand-name preferences early in a child's life.

“Most foods and food products advertised to children in Europe and the United States are calorie dense, as well as high in fats, sugars and, or, salt,”​ the report stated.

“These well-advertised foods often differ sharply from the nutritional recommendations of national and international public health organisations.

“Children aged two to eight who are exposed to commercials during children's TV programmes have been reported to demonstrate significant tendencies to choose food brands that have been promoted during their viewing time, even after just one short exposure.”

Source: Acta Paediatrica

Published online ahead of print: DOI: 10.1111/apa.14136

“Reviewing and addressing the link between mass media and the increase in obesity among European children: The European Academy of Paediatrics (EAP) and The European Childhood Obesity Group (ECOG) consensus statement.”

Authors: Artur Mazur et al.

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