Junk food + kids is a controversial topic that has gained steam over the last 15-20 years as experts and governmental officials have noticed the nearly unchecked rise in childhood obesity. While lifestyle obviously plays an overwhelming role in a person’s health, it is shaped and altered by a myriad of forces coming from outside the home environment. Entertainment (as in most developed countries but especially in the US) plays a very large role in children’s lives and has been long noted for its influence on their development. Junk food and advertisement for it have long been a bone of contention between various parties as it lies within a gray area between the home and commercialism.
The Current Concern With Junk Food & Kids
Noting that Disney introduced restrictions last year, the senators would like to see Nickelodeon introduce similar measures:
“We’re calling on Nickelodeon– the biggest source of food ads viewed by kids– to stop the pitches for unhealthy foods like sugary cereals and sweet snacks that are powerfully promoting childhood obesity,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said in a statement today.
This is a fine wish in theory, but in practise, Nickelodeon has other ideas:
Nickelodeon responded in a statement saying it is “primary responsibility is to make the highest-quality content in the world for kids, and we leave the science of nutrition to the experts.”
While they go on to state that they adhere to published guidelines published by the Better Business Bureau regarding advertising aimed at kids, such guidelines are voluntary for advertisers and include much room for leeway on their behalf when it comes to what constitutes ‘healthy’.
The Ethical Dilemma
This topic does, of course, throw up the ethical dilemma. While junk food forms part of an unhealthy lifestyle and indeed exaggerates it, it is only half of the story. Junk food in and of itself does not make a person inherently unhealthy (it may be bad for you, but a decent exercise regime will substantially minimise the effects).
A sedentary lifestyle forms the other half, and that’s where Nickelodeon (and by extension, animation) comes in. Without the content, there is little incentive to sit and watch television. It is the constant, unending supply of content on TV that has been a significant cause of childhood obesity in recent years.
Unlike times gone past, when kids’ programming was limited to a few hours in the afternoon before the news and on Saturday mornings, kids had no choice but to either switch off or get a dose of current affairs. It isn’t hard to guess which one most chose.
Compare that to today, when kids not only have a constant supply interrupted only by commercial breaks, they don’t even have to give up the television to someone else; 70% of American kids have TV in their bedroom.
Constant programming isn’t so much required as it is mandated in order for the networks to be commercially successful, and naturally, there is always the threat that if you don’t provide something, your competitors will. Such survival is ensured by advertisers, many of whom produce foods that are unhealthy for kids.
As creators of such content, where does the responsibility end when it comes to viewer’s habits and what can be done about it? Animators and artists do not set out to create a show that will contribute to childhood obesity, but can we blame them for accepting a job for a network that does? Hardly, we all have to survive, and the actions of the masses cannot be the responsibility of any one individual or show.
The Internet as a Solution?
A reduction in unhealthy advertising is an obvious first step, but when parents remain the party responsible for what makes it into the shopping trolley, will it do much good?
Perhaps ironically, the internet may offer a solution.
Long derided for its addictive qualities, the internet may prove pivotal in the quest to make consumers healthier. That is, despite the limitless quantity of content on the internet, there is an understanding that you simply cannot watch it all, not matter how hard you try.
Discussion around the segmentation of internet content to the point that it is practically tailor-made has gained steam recently. While this obviously has concerns as far as psychology, it should also mean that consumers spend less time watching content. Once they get caught up on new programming, there is less of an incentive to continue viewing.
Kids, being the most vulnerable, could be educated to control their viewing habits and to restrict it to measured doses. While YouTube pushes continued viewing on its platform, once a framework is established for younger viewers, it should be relatively easy to restrict viewing with technology.
Such is an example where companies and government could lead the way. On demand video eliminates the need to hit as many consumers at the same time. Instead, limiting viewing time should help networks as they will retain audience but will be able to earn more efficiency from their advertising.
The intersection of children and advertising will always be a contentious issue. Corporations and networks need to understand that sales to kids are only temporary anyway (because they grow up). Is targeting them ferociously really leading them to be customers all the way into adulthood? By all accounts, they will become customers regardless.
A more rational approach is needed to both advertising and the length of time that kids consume content; in the long run, it will benefit everyone.
For the curious, please also check out this video detailing the economic cost of obesity and why it hurts us all by Academic Earth.