The Walt Disney Co.’s decision to set tough new health standards on food advertising has been hailed by no less than first lady Michelle Obama, who called it a “game changer” in America’s struggle against obesity. Maybe it will be. Part of the test will be whether food companies respond by limiting saturated fat and sugar in their products, and whether parents and kids will actually buy them.
But in terms of saving children from temptation, the research on food advertising is suggestive rather than definitive. It’s easy to associate overweight children and weight gain with exposure to unhealthy-food advertisements, but it’s another thing to show that these advertisements persuaded the kids to persuade their parents to buy the food that made them fat.
“I think the data is not overly convincing because it is really a hard question to tackle empirically,” says Eric Finkelstein, an expert on the economics of health behavior and the author of The Fattening of America. But, he says, common sense suggests that food companies wouldn’t be spending so much to target children’s TV if it didn’t have an impact on sales. It’s reasonable to assume that changing that dynamic would have a positive effect on weight. “Disney’s move,” he says, “seems to be one in the right direction.”
But common sense also suggests that Disney would prefer its audience to see television ads for Tastee Krud as the problem and not television itself. As Gregory Norman, an associate professor in UC San Diego’s Department of Family and Preventive Medicine, explains, American kids are spending far too much time in front of a screen. “The average is way higher than the two-hour daily recommendation,” he says, “and in some demographics it reaches six hours a day.” The more time kids spend watching TV, the more food ads they see, but also the less energy they expend and the more they snack.
Norman and fellow researchers found that when parents and children both agree on clear rules for limiting screen time, kids watch less television. “Parents are the gatekeepers to food,” he says, and limiting television—and especially removing television from kids’ bedrooms—is a simple and effective way to hold back the advertising onslaught.
But when it comes to kids and technology, the kids, as always, are way ahead of the adults. A recent study in Britain found that 10- and 11-year-olds were now multiscreening—watching TV and using a laptop or cellphone at the same time. When the researchers asked why, the kids explained that it meant they could skip the ads.