A report from a Washington-based foundation concludes that the real link between media use and childhood obesity may not be from displaced exercise time, but rather from the billion-dollar advertising machinery directed at children.

The report—”The Role of Media in Childhood Obesity”—was released Tuesday by the Kaiser Family Foundation. It was accompanied by a briefing at the foundation’s offices that included leading researchers and authors on the issue, children’s programmers and grocery manufacturers.

The report reviewed more than 40 studies on the media’s role in increasing rates of childhood obesity. It concluded that, based on the various studies, children who spend the most time with media are the most likely to be overweight.

However, the report said there is little research to suggest that the linkage stems from media time replacing exercise time. Instead, the report concluded that the relationship between media and obesity has more to do with the billions of advertising and marketing dollars spent on getting children to eat unhealthy foods.

“The health implications of childhood obesity are staggering,” said Vicky Rideout, vice president and director of the Kaiser Family Foundation’s Program for the Study of Entertainment Media and Health in a press release. “While media is only one of many factors that appear to be affecting childhood obesity, it’s an important piece of the puzzle.”

The report found that children see roughly 40,000 ads per year, and that most of those ads are for food: 32 percent for candy, 31 percent for cereal and 9 percent for fast food.

Furthermore, the report indicated that marketers have stepped up the intensity of using popular media characters to sell kids unhealthy foods. It cited SpongeBob Cheez-Its, Hulk pizzas, Scooby-Doo marshmallow cereals and several other food tie-ins.

“It appears likely that the main mechanism by which media use contributes to childhood obesity may well be through children’s exposure to billions of dollars worth of food advertising and cross-promotional marketing year after year, starting at the very youngest ages, with children’s favorite media characters often enlisted in the sales pitch,” the report said.

The report also summarized various suggested options for combating the media-obesity link. Such options have included: banning advertising that targets preschoolers; prohibiting food “product placement” in children’s programming; and limiting tie-ins between popular children’s media characters and unhealthy food products.

The report cited the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the U.S. Surgeon General, and a slew of other reputable articles, studies, reports and surveys.

The Kaiser Family Foundation is a non-profit, private foundation that provides health-care information and analysis to policymakers, the media and the general public.

Cliff Vaughn is culture editor for EthicsDaily.com.

Click here to download the foundation’s 12-page issue brief (PDF).

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