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Children's Demands for Toys and Food Increase With TV Time, Researchers Say

By Dave Murphy
San Francisco Chronicle


Any parent could tell you that kids want stuff they see on TV, but a study released Monday by two Stanford doctors warns that the more hours children spend watching a screen—including video games on computers—the more nagging about toys and food they will dish out, for months and even years.

Which, of course, can lead to fatter children and thinner wallets.

“This is probably the tip of the iceberg in the way things are going,” said Dr. Lisa Chamberlain, the study’s coauthor, a clinical instructor at Stanford Medical School and a researcher at Packard Children’s Hospital. “We’re going to see more avenues of marketing to kids.”

Researchers began with several hundred third-graders from the San Jose area, then followed up with the children 7, 12 and 20 months after the original assessment. Chamberlain said they found that for each extra hour of screen time daily, children would request an additional toy every three or four months over what they normally would have asked for—along with an additional food or beverage every three to six months.

“The kids who were asking more at the beginning were asking (even) more at the end,” Chamberlain said. Video games were no exception, he said, because so many of them contain ads.

The data were collected in 2000 and 2001, and the children averaged 22 hours of screen time, with slightly less than half coming from television. Chamberlain said the concerns should be more acute today because more marketing focuses on children, for everything from computers to cell phones.

She said the data originally were part of a television reduction study done by Dr. Thomas Robinson, director of the Children’s Center for Healthy Weight at Packard. The researchers wrote them up recently for the April issue of the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine because of the increased concern over childhood obesity and the marketing of products to kids.

“In other countries, marketing to children is regulated,” Chamberlain said. “In the United States, it isn’t.”

The children in the study reported making about one request a week for toys and more than one every two weeks for food or drinks.

In December, the Institute of Medicine, a national science advisory panel, said that most foods and beverages introduced and marketed to children are high in sugar, salt, fat and calories. The institute urged manufacturers and restaurants to create more healthful products and spend money advertising those items.

The institute also reported that children, ages 2 to 14, influence families to purchase $500 billion of goods a year.

Sometimes parents don’t know whether requests for food and toys come because of peer pressure or television, said Robinson, who is also an associate professor of pediatrics at Stanford University. He said he was amazed at how clear the third-graders were about where they got their ideas.

Robinson said, too, that product placement has gotten so common in video games that children might get sales pitches that the parents don’t even notice. “There’s less and less of a distinction between the different media,” he said. 

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