USDA: TV a Cause of Childhood Obesity

One of every five American children is seriously overweight, and government officials are pointing their fingers at television as a major contributing cause. Health experts have been observing the trend for years, but it has finally grown to the point that high-level policy makers are beginning to take note. Some, like experts speaking at a US Department of Agriculture conference last week, are calling it an epidemic.

"We need to take this issue seriously," warned Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman, who characterized childhood obesity as "a quiet epidemic in America. It is time we elevated this issue to its rightful place near the top of the public health agenda."

Children are spending an unprecedented amount of time in front of the tube---time that might be spent playing outdoors. The lack of exercise, combined with overeating, is causing kids to gain weight in record numbers. Glickman noted that 80% of the advertisements aimed at children promote food. "We're not talking broccoli and spinach," he said.

There is a direct relationship between hours spent watching TV and pounds gained. An American Heart Association study conducted in San Jose, California, found that kids who cut back on television lost weight (or, as the researchers put it, "reduced their body-mass index") primarily because they played more actively. Dr. Thomas Robinson, co-director of youth studies at Stanford University's Center for Research in Disease Prevention, stressed that the problem isn't simply a matter of teaching children to eat healthier foods. Their sedentary behavior must be changed---an increasingly difficult prescription to fill, with parents working long hours and physical education a vestigial remnant of what it once was.

Stanford researchers sent informational letters and videos to parents to help them teach their children about the need for exercise and nutrition. "We need to focus on behavior," Robinson said. However, Glickman noted that teaching by example is difficult when half the adult population is overweight. Most adults are setting what he called "the Homer Simpson example"---sitting on the sofa, watching TV, and eating junk food.

Television isn't contributing only to the fattening of America's youth; it's also helping to build a mountain of consumer debt. Harvard Professor Juliet B. Schor, author of The Overspent American, has correlated television viewing habits with indebtedness. In 1994 and 1995, Schor conducted a large-scale study of American spending habits and related the results to other aspects of the modern lifestyle, particularly television-viewing habits. She concluded that the average American spends more than $200 for every hour of television watched.

Her conclusion has been corroborated by other studies. A Merck Family Fund poll taken in 1995 found a definite link between TV and indebtedness. Of the respondents in the Merck poll, 56% described themselves as "heavily in debt" and admitted that they "watch too much TV." Schor theorizes that the excess spending is less a response to advertising than an attempt by consumers to emulate the lavish lifestyles of fictional characters in televised dramas and soap operas. The more TV people watch, the more they tend to believe that it accurately reflects real life, and the more willing they are to go into debt to maintain that illusion.

University of Maryland economist Larry Ausubel has found that consumers greatly underestimate the amount of debt they carry. A total consumer debt of $182 billion in 1992 was thought by those same consumers to be only $70 billion, according to Ausubel's calculations.

Crimes against people and property have increased in the past 50 years, which corresponds almost exactly with the ascendancy of television. The Journal of the American Medical Association has reported that children watch between 15,000 and 18,000 hours of television by the time they reach 17 years of age. Other researchers have put the figure much higher. By comparison, a typical high-school graduate has spent approximately 12,000 hours in school.