The following podcast features an interview conducted by Stephanie Marudas with Amy Jordan about the current problem of childhood obesity in the United States. Amy Jordan was the Special Editor of the January 2008 volume of The Annals, “Overweight and Obesity in America’s Children: Causes, Consequences, Solutions.” She runs the Media and Developing Child Sector at the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania.
Stephanie Marudas: The word epidemic is commonly used to describe the childhood obesity problem in this country. To what extent is this the number one health problem facing American children today? How has that changed in the last thirty years? What sort of problems do children who are overweight face now and later on as they become adults?
Amy Jordan: The problem of childhood obesity has been described as an epidemic and I think accurately; although it’s not a condition that you can catch from someone else, which is usually how we think about epidemics. That it’s a contagious sort of thing. It is a problem that cuts across geographic regions, socioeconomic groups, ages. Also when we think about the issue or the problem of childhood obesity, we really need to think beyond just what children look like, what their size is or how they might be stigmatized by being overweight. We really need to be thinking about the health problems they’ll be facing. We see that children who are overweight are at greater risk for developing endocrine problems, skeletal muscular problems. And we also see that children who are overweight are very likely to be overweight as adults. So upwards of 70% of children who are overweight become adults who are overweight. And those kinds of problems that last through a lifetime do shorten life spans, do cause heart disease, and adult diabetes and even increased risk for cancer. So we need to be thinking, short term and long term, about the costs of childhood overweight.
SM: In The Annals about childhood obesity, which you edited, the articles there lay out how multi-dimensional the problem of childhood obesity is. If you could talk about that.
AJ: There are a lot of ways to think about how obesity emerges in children. We need to think about the built environment, the context that children live and grow in. Their playgrounds. The way their homes are laid out. Whether they have opportunities to walk to school or other kinds of places. We need to think about how they’re spending their leisure time. Are they more sedentary than they used to be? And the answer is yes. They’re using a lot more electronic media than they did 20 or 30 years ago. The average home has four television sets. Children’s bedrooms are replete with screen media. We also need to think about genetics because we are understanding better that some children are more at risk for overweight. We see that the best predictor of childhood obesity is parental obesity. And it could be that’s how they’re genetically programmed. It’s also likely that they’re learning eating patterns and physical activity patterns that make them more at risk. So it’s a multi-factoral kind of problem and as we’re thinking about ways to solve it, we need to come at it from lots of different directions.
SM: What we also learned in The Annals is that a third of the nation’s kids are overweight. That’s about 9 million kids. That number has tripled since 1980. We have the possibility of a generation of children who might have shorter life spans than their parents. Can you talk a bit about which children in this country are more likely to be overweight? To what extent is this is a minority and income class problem?
AJ: We have seen over the last couple of decades a doubling and then a tripling of the number of children who are classified as overweight or obese. And the good news is that with the last data that we collected in 2008 that trend appears to be leveling off. We hope to bend the curve a little bit and start to bring the numbers down. But at least it’s leveled off. But there are children in this country who are more at risk. We find that the children who are most at risk are ethnic minorities, specifically Hispanic and African American. And again, we need to think about the confluence of factors that put them more at risk. It probably is genetic but also behavioral in terms of opportunities; and economic, what kinds of foods are affordable. In this country, what we find, because of government subsidies and changes in marketing practices, the foods that are cheaper and more accessible for low-income families are foods that aren’t as healthy. And we need to start to change that or at least think about how we provide or deliver fresh foods, and make them available in low-income communities so that they have the same opportunity to eat as healthfully as their higher-income counterparts.
And certainly this brings up elements of the Obama administration’s Let’s Move initiative
an anti-childhood obesity campaign that the White House released earlier this year. And these are elements of how to get healthy food to families and children who might not ordinarily have that ability. As we think about this initiative, it’s sort of unprecedented at the White House level to be doing this. Can you talk a bit about this program and what you see some of the strengths of this initiative to be so far?
It’s so exciting that Michelle Obama
took this on as her topic. It’s something that’s clearly been on the minds of parents for some time. We look at poll data over the last five or so years and when we ask Americans what is the number one problem facing children today, they say childhood obesity. So there’s a recognition that this is something that as a nation we need to address. But it really hadn’t been addressed at a presidential level until Michelle Obama took it on as an issue that she was personally to be involved in. And I think the way she’s approaching it is really smart. Because she’s not just pointing a finger at one problem, let’s say food marketing or the lack of physical activity in schools—the elimination of recess. She’s looking at all of the factors that affect it: communities that don’t have grocery stores that have fresh food available, for example, and ways to bring those kinds of stores into what she calls food deserts. She’s also thinking about ways of encouraging kids to be more physically active and has specifically talked about limiting her own children’s media time, screen time, to come in line with the American Academy of Pediatrics recommendation
for two hours a day or less. She’s also been leading by example. Talking about her own experiences as a mother. Talking to a pediatrician about what’s happening with her children’s weight. And although she never has and no one ever would call her children overweight or fat, she also recognizes that there’s a trajectory that children get on. And if we don’t pay attention to it, we see that behaviors that are established when children are five, or six or seven, might continue on unless something is changed. So as a working mother, she’s talked about the difficulty of getting healthy food on the table for her children after a long day of work. And the kinds of things we need to do to empower parents, not just point fingers at the problem.
SM: You mentioned screen media and this is something that the Let’s Move campaign in its literature, its mission, doesn’t tackle outright. It doesn’t target food marketing, children’s media consumption. And yet this is something that you and other scholars, especially in The Annals, see a link between the rise of childhood obesity and the rise of children’s media consumption in this country. And we know from the Kaiser Family Foundation, earlier this year, that children’s media consumption is way up. Seven hours thirty-eight minutes on average, four of those hours—a good chunk devoted to TV. Can you talk a bit about what some of these links are that you see between media consumption and childhood obesity?
Yes. The Kaiser Family Foundation report
that was released in January  showed that the average child between eight and 18 is spending 7.5 hours a day with screen media. We know from large survey data sets that children who spend a lot of time with media are more likely to be overweight. We know also that spending a lot of time with media precedes overweight. We have a good sense of what’s causing what, although ultimately it’s probably cyclical. You watch more television, you’re exposed to more ads for junk food. You’re more sedentary. You become more overweight, less likely to participate in physically active kinds of things like sports as you spend more time watching television. It’s a vicious cycle. And it’s really important for parents to think about how much time their children are spending in front of a screen. In our studies at the Annenberg Public Policy Center
, when we’ve asked parents how much time does your child spend with media, they’ll think about it and say about two hours a day. But then when we ask them to walk us through their child’s day and indicate how much time they’re spending with various media between the time they get up and go to school, get home from school and dinner and bedtime— they suddenly recognize it’s many more hours than they originally thought because so much of it is going on behind closed doors or off the radar of parents. So I think that one of the first things we need to do is to get parents to be more aware of how children are spending their time and how much of that time is spent looking at a screen. With respect to the Let’s Move
campaign and Michelle Obama’s perspective on bringing together many different stakeholders to solve this problem, I think she’s wise not to go after television per se or food marketers per se because we really don’t want to alienate them. We want to make them part of the solution. For example, Nickelodeon has a campaign where they encourage children to be more active. And at one point, they actually cut transmission. So the screen goes black for a couple of hours. In the run-up to it, they try to encourage children to be physically active. So I think if we can recognize that if we’re going to deliver a campaign, then it’s probably going to be through television or other media. And we need to have them on board in order to bring these kinds of messages to children. That’s important. It’s also important for food marketers to think about what kinds of foods they can be marketing that maybe aren’t so detrimental to children’s health. And we really haven’t seen that change much, although the food marketers have pledged to do a better job of promoting healthy foods. Not everyone has signed up for this initiative. And not everyone has the same goals or priorities. So we need to do a better job of encouraging the food marketers to change their products or select more healthful products for kids to consume. About a third of products that are advertised on children’s television are for food. And the vast majority of those food and beverage products—about 70%–are what we would call junk food—are high in sugar, salt, fat; and low in nutritional value, high in caloric content. And we really need to start to see changes in that. It’s something that I hope Michelle Obama, the First Lady, will start to tackle with them.
One thing she [First Lady Michelle Obama] did say when launching the initiative, “Our kids didn’t choose to make food products with tons of fat and sugar and supersized portions, and then to have those foods marketed to them wherever they turn.” So she acknowledges that this is a problem. But like you said, they’re not outright going after the food industry because perhaps there’s an advantage to bring them in as part of the solution. And one of the things that we see with this initiative is that public service announcements
are a big part of it. Some media companies are doing pro bono work for it. There are celebrities, cartoon characters, athletes promoting a healthy lifestyle.
As Susan Linn’s
article in The Annals
, “Calories for Sale,”
they [Susan Linn and Courtney Novosat] make the point that: is it such a good idea for the food industry to even advertise healthy foods? Is this influencing how kids eat? So I wonder what you thought about this. Is it a Catch-22? You sort of need the food industry but then where’s that balance?
AJ: It’s a tricky problem. The food industry, when they first had eyebrows raised at what it was doing—this was maybe even seven or ten years ago—did start thinking about what they were advertising and how they were advertising. And of course they always want to ward off regulation wherever they can. If there is to be regulation, they want it to be self-regulation. They want to be able to dictate the terms of what the quote, unquote voluntary guidelines will be. So they said to the Federal Trade Commission, the Federal Communications Commission and many advocacy groups, here’s what we’re going to do: we’ll keep marketing these foods to children but we’ll encourage a more healthy lifestyle. And that’s great. But confusing, I think, for children. In the sense that if the advertisement for McDonalds is one that shows Ronald McDonald and kids riding their bikes to McDonalds, it’s a mixed message. And it points to the need for research, for all of these kinds of public service advertisements or exercise campaigns or nutrition campaigns to understand how the messages are getting received. We still don’t know what it means to children and the choices they make in terms of food. To see unhealthy food products being advertised in the context of physical activity, we don’t know how they’re receiving that message. And the same thing with celebrities becoming involved and encouraging children to get fit or the NFL crafting messages to encourage children to get outside and play. We believe that it’s probably good but it’s possible that it could have a kind of boomerang effect where it has the opposite. But that’s where research is important and it’s really necessary to build in very thoughtful analysis of how the messages are crafted and how they’re received and whether they affect behavior.
SM: In terms of children’s media consumption and food marketing, if the Obama administration came to you and said, ‘Amy Jordan, what would you recommend we do if we want to address food marketing, children’s media consumption.’ What sort of outreach would you recommend?
AJ: It may seem as though I’m contradicting my concern about the effect of unhealthy food product marketing to children by saying that I don’t think it should be regulated or banned. One concern that I have with outright banning of junk food is what we’ve seen in England. You cast a net and say here are the kinds of products that can’t be advertised to children and then you end up catching products that most people think would be just fine like cheese or raisins, because it doesn’t meet the criteria set by a government agency. Also, we know that food marketing is important in terms of the economic structure of children’s television. If you take away an important base for the media companies and they have to look elsewhere for funding, then we may see less quality children’s programming or we might just see less programming. And it’s been pretty good lately. So better, I think, is the idea of presenting healthy foods to children within the context of the programs they love—so encouraging the marketing of low-fat dairy and vegetables and water and alternative kinds of foods. And also we should think about counter-marketing. We did this when we first started tackling the problem of tobacco. Where for every four cigarette ads there had to be an anti-smoking public service announcement. And so the ads can still be there. But we can also see that here are the kinds of problems that might result from overeating the kinds of products that are so heavily marketed to children. There’s a reason why these products are so successful: why Kraft Foods or General Mills puts all of their marketing dollars into these kinds of products. Children like them. They taste good and there’s immediate gratification in them. But children aren’t thinking long term about their health and their bodies and parents often don’t have control over what children are eating. So I think going right to children and helping them to understand what the consequences of eating too many Ho Hos or too much sugared cereal or drinking too many cans of soda will do for their health and their energy and their ability to do well in school, I think will be really important. So promoting healthier foods and providing counter-marketing to the unhealthy foods, I think are two strategies we could take up.
SM: Overall, when you look at this Let’s Move initiative, does it address the multi-dimensional aspects of childhood obesity that you and other scholars see, as laid out in The Annals?
AJ: In theory, yes. It addresses the major issues that we know influence children’s weight status: physical activity and nutrition. But it’s not clear to me yet what the campaign as a whole will emphasize. And it’s not clear to me, yet, whether the campaign will be focused on parents or youth or communities or states or the nation. So all of that needs to become real before we really have a good sense of whether and how it’s affecting weight status.
SM: In The Annals, you do talk about what parents and caregivers and physicians could do as far as informing families about TV consumption. Could you lay out some of those recommendations?
Sure. The authors who contributed to The Annals
volume on childhood obesity had really good ideas about ways that pediatricians and parents and educators could start to approach it. One really good idea that was put forth by my colleagueTo m Robinson
at Stanford [“What Can We Do to Control Childhood Obesity”]
was that pediatricians talk to parents about how much time their child is spending watching a television or using a computer or playing video games. And in his view—he’s a pediatrician—it gives the issue more gravitas. It helps parents see that this is something they need to think about in terms of their child’s overall health. Pediatricians will talk to parents about the importance of wearing a bike helmet. The importance of getting enough physical activity. But they haven’t spent as much time talking about sedentary activity or sedentary behaviors. And you and I might think about this as two sides of the same coin. You know if you just decrease television viewing, which is sedentary behavior, that will increase physical activity. But studies have shown that that’s not the case. That turning off the television doesn’t make kids suddenly become more active. But it does, in and of itself, predict overweight status. Even if you can’t get children to become more physically active, if you can get them to be less sedentary—just moving from watching TV to reading a book—you can somehow change behaviors. So that’s one suggestion. Another suggestion that was made in The Annals
volume was that parents disconnect television viewing from eating. There have been several experiments that have shown that when children are given the opportunity to eat with the television on or off, they eat more when the TV is on. And there’s a few different hypotheses for why that would be the case. And by the way, we found this to be true of college-age students. But we found it especially to be true of kids who are overweight. So children who are overweight who take their snack, with the television on, just consume far more calories than when the television is off. Why? It’s possible that they just don’t pay attention to feelings of fullness. They’re distracted by what they’re seeing on the screen. They’re making their way through a tube of Pringles
. They get to the bottom of it by the time the show is over and everybody is surprised. They don’t quite realize how much they’ve eaten. So having the television off allows individuals, adults and children to pay more attention to how full they are and whether they’ve eaten enough.
SM: In The Annals, the research showed that a high number of families have TVs in their dining areas.
AJ: Yes. One of the really surprising findings from a study we did here at Annenberg was, we asked parents to map out where media are in their homes. So we gave them what we called a home media inventory to see where the TVs were and how many different kinds of media were in children’s bedrooms. And we found that about half of the families had a TV in a room where they ate, the dining room or the kitchen. So a very simple strategy to disconnect eating and viewing would be just to take the TV out of those places where people eat. Or to say to children you know when you watch TV, you can’t snack or when you snack, you can’t watch TV. So just having a rule that you can’t bring your snack into the living room where the best TV is would likely decrease the number of calories that children consume.
SM: As far as what parents can do in helping stem the problem of childhood obesity, what role can they play? To what extent do they need to be role models for their children in terms of their lifestyle?
AJ: Parents need to be role models in every extent. The best predictor of childhood obesity is parental obesity. The best predictor of children’s heavy media use is parents’ heavy media use. One of the best predictors of children’s physical activity levels is parents’ physical activity levels. So in every way parents are living, walking, breathing examples of what children can and should be doing with their time and with their food. At the Annenberg Public Policy Center, one of the things that we explored was the challenges that parents face in bringing children’s screen time to the recommended levels of two hours a day or less. And with television viewing and computer use and video game playing, we see that it’s part of the fabric of family life. For many families, it punctuates the day. Children watch television in the hour before bedtime and when that TV show is over, now it’s time for bed. So say, okay now change without providing a lot of alternatives, I think will be hard for parents. One of the scenarios that we presented to parents and children is what would you do with your time if there was an ice storm and the power went out and you couldn’t watch TV. Many children would say ‘I would play my Game Boy.’ Or parents would say ‘I would tell them to go listen to the radio.’ So there isn’t a lot of thinking about what kinds of things kids can do in the home that don’t involve media. We also said to parents, outside of the ice storm scenario, what would you suggest your child do instead of watch TV? And we found many parents saying ‘I’d have him clean his room. Or maybe he could do his homework.’ So presenting attractive alternatives to kids will also be an important step. I think providing parents with ideas about things they can be doing with their children that don’t involve the media will be important. Because we have a generation of parents now who grew up themselves with media, and the concept of getting down on the floor and stacking up blocks or coloring with their child, is kind of foreign to them. And I think it’s a generation of parents who forgot how to play, or maybe never learned how to play and aren’t passing that onto their children. So the more we can do of that, I think the more successful we’ll be at getting children away from screens and into activities that are enriching and more physically healthy.
SM: In The Annals, we read about what school administrators can do and some suggestions for fighting childhood obesity. So what would be your advice to school administrators who are concerned about childhood obesity, and some strategies they could implement?
AJ: Children are spending almost as much of their waking time in schools as they are in other kinds of environments, including the home. So what they’re doing in school is really affecting a lot of the way they think about how they should be spending their time and what kinds of foods they’re eating. And I think we’ve come a long way in considering what cafeterias offer to children over the last two decades. But there’s still a serious problem of what we call competitive foods. So the foods that come in from the outside, like Pizza Hut or McDonalds, children are very aware of because they’re heavily marketed and branded and don’t have as much nutritional value as the kind of thing the lunch lady might put on a plate. Many schools have banned sugary drinks from their campuses. So we don’t have in elementary and middle schools, soda or Gatorade or those kinds of drinks available to kids. They’re choosing low-fat milk and getting used to drinking water. So those are positive steps. But many schools are trying to get back to the place where they feel that they have control over providing children with recess. In many districts, because of the heavy focus on tests and squeezing a lot of academic material into a day and making sure that the schools are reaching academic benchmarks, children no longer have a chance to run around the way they used to; even though studies show that it’s important for their physical well-being but also their emotional and academic well-being. Children who have a chance to run around and blow off steam are more prepared to learn when they get back into the classroom. So I think we’re seeing that come full circle again and the recognition of the need for a recess period or physical activity period. I think schools can also be at the cutting edge of teaching children how to be critical consumers of the marketing that’s around them, to not take at face value an advertisement that says if you drink this sugary beverage, you’re going to be a better soccer player. Or if you eat these chips, you’re going to be a more popular student.
We can use these kinds of ubiquitous marketing strategies that all kids know about as teachable moments and help them understand that this is what they’re trying to do. They’re trying to get you to buy products and this is what the consequence might be. So yes, I think schools on many levels can be an important part of the puzzle to raising children’s awareness and changing children’s practices.
SM: Here in Philadelphia, and across the country in major cities, there’s debate about whether to tax sweetened beverages like sodas. And I was wondering what you think about this practice. Maybe there’s not enough research out there yet to see the cause and effect. But would this be an effective way to help curb childhood obesity?
AJ: The soda tax, as it’s called here in Philadelphia, or the tax on sugar-sweetened beverages, is one that’s being considered in Philadelphia, in New York, in Boston. It’s been tried in Chicago. And some people might wonder well why soda? Or why these energy drinks? And why not Skittles or Snickers? Why would we focus in on that? And there is good data to show that sugar-sweetened beverages do contribute to children’s overweight. Children consume about 11% of their calories per day through these sugar-sweetened beverages. And simply eliminating that might lead to a reduction of upwards of 10 pounds per year. Whether or not taxing sugar-sweetened beverages changes anybody’s behavior or choices in purchasing, that remains to be seen. And again, that’s where research is going to be really important. But at least in Philadelphia, for the first time, people have been talking about what kind of calories might be leading to weight problems, and how sugar-sweetened beverages like very cheap soda might be an independent factor that maybe they think twice about next time they make a choice. These kinds of taxes I think are important to public discourse and even individual thinking. I’m someone who likes soda, who doesn’t like diet soda, and who would sort of automatically just order a ginger ale before a meal. And it’s caused me to think about, do I really want that and does it affect my overall calorie intake? And it’s caused me to look at studies that show that in fact if you drink a can of soda before a meal, you will not feel full. It will not change your caloric intake during that meal. If you ate a bag of chips or a Snickers bar with the same number of calories, it would change your feeling of fullness. So it seems as though sugar-sweetened beverages are metabolized or at least the body is thinking about them or processing them in ways that are different than jelly beans or other kinds of candy or nutrition-free foods.
SM: And certainly in The Annals, there are articles that bring up what the role of public policy is. And how much of a role does government—either at the local, state or federal level—need to be involved? How much government participation do we need to regulate some practices that very well are associated with childhood obesity?
AJ: We don’t know the answer to that, yet. We’ve seen in other public health arenas such as tobacco or seat belt use that government involvement was necessary to change behaviors. The government was involved in raising awareness of the risks of tobacco or cigarette smoking back in the Sixties and Seventies. They were involved in limiting the amount of advertising and providing counter-advertising. And they were also involved in raising taxes so that at the end of the day, cigarettes were too expensive for children to purchase. Other kinds of things that they did were take vending machines out of public places so that children had to purchase cigarettes from an adult. So yes, I think that we can learn from other kinds of public health issues whether and how government involvement has had an effect. We also saw with seat belts that it really wasn’t until there was a law, saying that you had to buckle up, that people started taking seat belts seriously. But it was the children who changed the behavior. It was the children who became inculcated with the message that you need to put your seat belt on if you’re going to be in a moving vehicle. So thinking both about how public policy changes what’s affordable, what’s available, both good and bad, and how you can get a generational shift in beliefs about what’s appropriate to drink or eat or how much physical activity do I need—both arms are really important.
And certainly in the area of food marketing directed at children, we’re starting to see some developments at the congressional, federal level. Last year , the House of Representatives passed a resolution forming The Interagency Working Group on Food Marketed to Children
, which is made up of the FTC
(Federal Trade Commission), the FDA
(Food and Drug Administration), the CDC
(Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), and the Department of Agriculture
. In December of 2009, they put out their tentative proposed standards
and basically said we are suggesting to limit food marketing to children essentially to food that’s considered healthful. So I was wondering is this a step in the right direction to help fight childhood obesity in this country?
I think it’s very important for food marketers to get a consistent message from groups like the FTC, the Federal Trade Commission [and] the Federal Communications Commission. These kinds of recommendations have been coming out for about 10 years now, though. In 2005, theInstitutes of Medicine
made a similar recommendation. About two years ago, a collaborative group between Congress and the FCC and the FTC also suggested that changes be made. With each effort to raise awareness among the public and within the food and beverage associations, I think we get closer to self-regulation that meets the needs and the interests of everybody who cares about children. We call this “regulation by raised eyebrow” where Congress is essentially saying this is what we want you to do. And the raised eyebrow implies that if you don’t do it, we’ll help you by providing legislation that mandates it. And they don’t want to do it necessarily. No one wants to be the food marketer police. The folks at the Federal Communications Commission don’t want to sit and watch advertisements and see who’s adhering to it and who needs to be fined. But I think that public perception is such that if the food marketers don’t start to dramatically change, then their representatives in Congress are going to feel it necessary to make some laws. But whether there’s a political will to really push it through, it’s still not clear. Partly because in this economy, it’s really hard to start to take away important parts of the economic puzzle that keep industries, like the media industry, together and solvent.
Susan Linn’s “Calories for Sale”
article in The Annals
helps us understand the history of food marketing in this country and the regulations around them. And we come away finding out that those government agencies, like the FTC, their powers were weakened in 1980. Linn sort of makes the argument that food marketing laws were weakened, the food industry was left to self-regulate. They [the food industry] spent $100 million in 1980, today they spend upwards of $15 billion on advertising for children; and we have record-high childhood obesity.
It’s a very interesting history that Susan brings up in The Annals.
Because we saw in the 1970s that the Federal Trade Commission wanted to regulate, maybe even eliminate sugary foods marketed to children. Their concern then wasn’t childhood weight status. It was cavities. And they were very concerned about what these kinds of foods, that were being over-marketed to children, were doing to their teeth. So they made some noise about looking at possible ways to regulate it. And they were smacked down so hard by the lobbyists in Washington, and the lobbyists got Congress to the point where they said ‘We don’t want you regulating advertising. This is commercial speech and it’s protected by the First Amendment, maybe we’ll just eliminate the FTC altogether.’ And of course that quieted everybody down and they moved along through a period in the Eighties of deregulation during the Reagan administration. But I think we’ve come full circle, where now we have better evidence that there is this relationship between food marketing and children’s preferences and consumption patterns; and we recognize that we need to be more careful about it. The evidence that we have and it was written about a bit by Ariel Chernin in The Annals
special issue volume [“The Effects of Food Marketing on Children’s Preferences: Testing the Moderating Roles of Age and Gender”].
Ariel Chernin points out that study after study has shown that children who are exposed to junk food ads during children’s programming are more likely to choose that product after viewing as opposed to a healthy product than children who aren’t exposed to it. Other studies have shown that when children are marketed healthy foods, they’re more likely to choose healthy foods. So again, we get back to the point of if we can just take those same strategies that we use to market unhealthy foods to children and leverage that to increase children’s interest in or awareness of or desire for healthy foods, then I think we can start to change overall dietary practices. And really at the end of the day, that’s what we want. We don’t want to eliminate junk food from children’s lives because they like it. It’s fun. It’s a part of childhood, and I guess increasingly a part of adulthood. But we do want to find a way to have a better balance in what gets marketed to children. You know, 70% percent of the foods marketed to kids are for products that have no nutritional value. Then what kind of message are we giving to children? We really need to change that landscape and I think what Susan Linn is suggesting in her article are important strategies for doing that. Another concern that I have with banning junk food marketing to children on television—television and radio are really the only media that the FTC and FCC have a lot of control over. Susan [Linn] has pointed out that if you kind of plug that hole, you say no food marketing on television, then it goes somewhere else. It goes onto the Internet, which is completely unregulated. Or it goes onto billboards or into schools. It’s kind of like a leaky ship. It’s just going to come in somewhere else. So we need to think about building children’s capacities to resist these kinds of messages, providing counter messages about what’s healthy versus unhealthy, and making sure that they have access to the kinds of foods they need.
SM: So, overall as a scholar, do you feel that there’s momentum building? And is it much more exciting now to be engrossed in these issues with childhood obesity and your special concern about media consumption? Do you feel this?
AJ: I do. I’ve been looking at the relationship between media and childhood obesity for about seven years. I’ve been studying children and media all of my professional life, but I came into this field really at the beginning. We had collected enough evidence to say that there is a relationship between screen media use and children’s weight status, and we were asking why. Why is it? Is it the food marketing? Is it being sedentary? Is it interfering with their sleep? And now because of the attention that the First Lady [Michelle Obama] has brought to the issue of childhood overweight, and I think because of the evidence-base that we have for how much and why and who’s affected, we are really in the position to do something about it and from many different directions. And I have seen that there is now local and state and federal funding to try to develop campaigns to address overweight not just in children but also in adults. An interest in communities to try to start to change the built environment, provide more bike routes and safe walking spaces. An interest in reintroducing recess to schools. So yes, it’s a very exciting time to be a part of this field and I’m very hopeful that we’ve crested the problem of childhood obesity. That we now have a chance to start to pull it down from its high of affecting 9 million children. So every year, I think if we can bring that number down, then we’re going to have a generation of adults in 10 years that are going to be healthier.
SM: Amy, Thank you for your time and doing this interview with us.
AJ: It’s been a pleasure. Thank you for speaking with me.
Disclaimer: The views expressed herein are solely the opinions of the individuals and not those of the Academy