By Amanda Gardner
MONDAY, June 27 (HealthDay News) -- The nation's leading group of pediatricians is calling for a ban on all junk food and fast food ads during children's television shows as a means of slowing the rising tide of obesity among young people.
In a policy statement published in the July issue of Pediatrics, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) also asks Congress, the Federal Trade Commission and the Federal Communications Commission to eliminate junk food and fast food ads on cell phones and other media, as well as to prohibit companies that make such products from paying to have their products featured in movies.
"Given that we are smack in the midst of an epidemic of child and adolescent obesity, it doesn't seem like all that bad an idea," said Dr. Victor Strasburger, lead author of the statement.
"We have many bans on advertising already," said Dr. Benard P. Dreyer, a professor of pediatrics at New York University School of Medicine in New York City. This latest action identifies just one more toxic thing that children should not be exposed to, he added.
One-third of American children and teens are overweight or obese, double the proportion of 30 years ago, the AAP statement said, and several studies have identified TV watching as a contributing factor.
Watching TV or movies or being engrossed in texting or playing games on a cell phone means that children have less time to run, walk or otherwise exercise and more time to snack, according to the AAP statement.
But what kids are watching also influences their eating habits, and what they're seeing is a preponderance of commercials for high-sugar, high-fat foods. One study found that 98 percent of food ads seen by children on top-rated shows were for junk food. Another study estimated that young people see 12 to 21 food ads every day on average, for a total of up to 7,600 ads a year, the AAP statement noted. And TV or DVD watching also disrupts the quality and length of sleep, a known risk factor for obesity.
The AAP statement reminds pediatricians that they should be asking two critical questions during routine well-child visits: "How much screen time is being spent per day?" and "Is there a TV set or Internet connection in the [child's] bedroom?"
Having a TV set in the child's bedroom seems to have an even more profound impact on children's weight.
"I think [asking these questions] is really an advantageous recommendation," said Dana Rofey, an assistant professor in the Weight Management and Wellness Program at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh. "Several years ago, the AAP [recommended] that pediatricians track body-mass index. This is the other side of the coin."
"Kids spend an average of seven hours a day with media, and that media potentially affects virtually every concern that parents and pediatricians have about children from sex to drugs to obesity to school achievement," added Strasburger, a professor of pediatrics at the University of New Mexico School of Medicine in Albuquerque. "Spending 20 seconds to ask two media-related questions doesn't seem like that onerous a request."
The policy statement also recommends that pediatricians urge parents to discuss food advertising with their children and discuss healthy eating habits.
And "parents need to understand that the research is now clear and convincing that exposure to screen time is one major factor in child and adolescent obesity," stressed Strasburger. "So if your child is watching five hours of TV a day, his or her risk of being obese is several times increased over a child who watches less than two hours a day, which is what the AAP recommends. If parents would just observe the AAP guidelines about media use, they'd be in great shape and so would their kids."
Is a ban likely to happen? Who knows, but Dreyer points out that economists have estimated that such a ban would result in a 15 percent to 20 percent reduction in childhood overweight and obesity rates.
The Federal Communications Commission has more on media and childhood obesity.
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