Friday, June 22nd, 2007 10:13:37

Tell Junior to put down his burger and watch the debates

This week, two articles regarding studies focused on children caught my attention because they highlighted everyday activities in children’s lives in America, fast food and TV/video. The Los Angeles Times’ headlines were: “Kids prefer McDonald’s-wrapped food, study finds and “‘Baby Einstein’: a bright idea?”

The fast food branding study in the first article, (Effects of Fast Food Branding on Young Children’s Taste Preferences), included 63 lower-income preschool children aged 3.5 to 5.4 years of age.

The study noted that the “children tasted 5 pairs of identical foods and beverages in packages from McDonald’s and matched but unbranded packaging and were asked to indicate if they tasted the same or if one tasted better.”

The hypothesis for this study was that the “children would express no preference.”

The study results indicated that “children preferred the tastes of food and drinks if they thought they were from McDonald’s.”

The study noted that the effect was greater the more TVs in the child’s home and the more frequently the family reported eating food from McDonald’s.

The report also noted that there were 2.4 TVs per home and 57% of the children had a TV in their bedroom.

My guess is that most parents would have been able to tell you without the study that, yes; children do prefer food that they have seen advertised. Of course advertising works, that’s why companies advertise. The study states that the food and beverage industry spends more than $10 billion per year to market to children in the United States.

The question that the study does not consider is when and how often parents will drive their children to McDonald’s and purchase the food for them. We can assume that most 4 year olds do not get themselves to a McDonald’s and purchase their food on their own.

The second study “Associations between Media Viewing and Language Development in Children Under Age 2 Years” was completed to “test the association of media exposure with language development in children under age 2 years.

This study was conducted through telephone surveys to parents. The study states that “Questions were asked about child and parent demographics, child-parent interactions, and child’s viewing of several content types of television and DVDs/videos.” Parents were also asked to complete a word inventory for their child.

The study categorized Television, DVD and video viewing into four categories: baby DVDs and videos; educational TV programs (“Sesame Street” and “Arthur”); children’s non-educational programs (“Sponge Bob Square Pants” and “Toy Story”) and adult television (“The Simpsons” and sports programming).

The results indicated that, among infants (age 8 to 16 months), for each hour per day they spent viewing baby DVDs/videos, the children knew six to eight fewer words than did children who watched no such programs.
Baby DVDs and videos had no positive or negative effect on the vocabularies on toddlers 17 to 24 months of age.

These same researchers (Frederick Zimmerman, Dr. Dimitri Christakis, and Andrew Meltzoff), published a paper last spring that showed that by, 3 months of age, 40 percent of infants are regular viewers of television, DVDs or videos, and by the age of 2, 90 percent are regular viewers.

“I would rather babies watch ‘American Idol’ than these videos,” said Dr. Christakis, one of the researcher for the study, explaining that there is at least a chance their parents would watch with them and parent interaction does have developmental benefits.

This quote led me to wonder, if watching “American Idol” is better than watching a baby DVD, and if, as Newt Gingrich has said, the presidential debates are “a cross between [TV shows] ‘The Bachelor,’ ‘American Idol’ and ‘Who’s Smarter than a Fifth-Grader,’ would babies be better off watching presidential debates?

In a response to an e-mail, Dr. Christakis put his quote in context, noting “parents should spend quality time with infants, speaking parentese, reading, playing and interacting with them, as opposed to using video products marketed as items that supposedly claim to make babies “smarter” with titles like “Brainy Baby,” “Baby Einstein,” etc. “contrary to the marketing push for video stimulation for babies, which many parents mistakenly think provides a benefit, there appears to be no benefit and in fact there may be a reduction in language development.”

Both of these articles remind us that raising a child is a responsibility and that the way that responsibility is carried out will have great impact on his or her development. Parents’ opinions and knowledge will shape the way children view healthy and unhealthy foods. Parents get to decide whether they are going to the McDonald’s drive-through and whether the babies will spend their time watching baby Einstein or interacting with others. Part of what we need to pass down to our children is a sense of personal responsibility.

Remember, all things in moderation, especially TV and fast food.