Yordarqui Martinez knows how important it is to keep his children’s minds as engaged without the help of TV as much as possible. When he gets home from work each day, he either reads books to his kids, Chalize, 9, and Jaden, 4, or has them work on activities, and he limits their television usage to one hour daily. He and his girlfriend, Lisbeth Rodriguez, also try to take them outside to play regularly because they want to keep them healthy and active and steer them clear of a sedentary lifestyle.
Daiyana Lazala-Gordon’s husband doesn’t like their children to watch too much television either. Their two children, Aiyanana, 4,and Tristen, 2, watch about an hour of TV daily, and Lazala-Gordon encourages them to paint or play with toys instead of being constantly plugged in. She also doesn’t want them to be subjected to the constant advertising for unhealthy food.
A new report released by Northwestern University suggests that more parents need to follow Martinez’, Rodriguez’ and Lazala-Gordon’s lead. The research, which is the first national study to focus exclusively on children’s media use by race and ethnicity, measured how much media youth of color consume, and the study findings revealed that young people of color are using an average of 13 hours of media a day, almost 4.5 more hours that their white counterparts.
The report found that youth of color spend one to two additional hours each day watching TV and videos, about an hour and a half more on computers, approximately an hour more listening to music and an additional 30 to 40 minutes more playing video games than white youth. African-American youth watched the most TV, a total of 5:54 hours daily.
According to the “Let’s Move” campaign launched by Michelle Obama, over the past three decades, childhood obesity rates in America have tripled, and today, nearly one in three children in America are overweight or obese. Given the disproportionate rate of obesity in minority youth populations — 40 percent of African American and Hispanic children are considered overweight or obese— could there be a link between media usage and obesity rates of children of color?
“Scientific studies have found again and again that television viewing and other forms of advertising are profoundly related to obesity in children, teens, and even adults,” said Frederick Zimmerman, chair of health services at the UCLA School of Public Health. “Although it can be hard for us to admit it, our behavior is strongly influenced by the media we see. If we see images of kids drinking sodas and eating corn chips, that’s what we’ll find ourselves doing, often without fully wanting to, and sometimes to our own surprise.”
The Northwestern study also revealed that black and Hispanic youth are more likely to have TV sets in their bedrooms (84 percent of blacks and 77 percent of Hispanics compared to 64 percent of whites and Asians), and that minority youth eat more meals in front of the TV set. In fact, 78 percent of black 8- to 18-year-olds reported that the TV is “usually” on during meals at home. Northwestern Professor Ellen Wartella, who directed the study and heads the Center on Media and Human Development in the School of Communication, believes that this may also be contributing to childhood obesity rates in this population.“There is some evidence that having a television set in the bedroom increases media use, and again increased TV use is related to what children eat,” adds Wartella. “Clearly the more time kids spend watching television and other media, the less time they have playing and moving around.”
Results from a 2007-2008 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, a program of the National Center for Health Statistics at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), indicated that an estimated 16.9 percent of children and adolescents aged 2-19 years are obese. The research also found that between 1994-2008, the prevalence of obesity increased from 10.7 percent to 19.8 percent among non-Hispanic black boys, and from 16.3 to 29.2 percent among non-Hispanic black girl. The obesity prevalence was highest among non-Hispanic Black children (23.9 percent), followed by Hispanic children (23.4 percent).
There is a lot at stake when it comes to curbing childhood obesity rates. Nearly $150 billion a year, or 10 percent of all medical costs, is spent on obesity-related diseases in the U.S. alone, and given the number minority youth preferring media use over physical activity, obesity has the potential of turning into a bigger national public health problem.
To address this issue, First Lady Michelle Obama established the “Let’s Move!” initiative in February 2010 to get children and their parents to increase their physical activity and to live healthier lifestyles. She encourages parents to make better food choices and to take more time to exercise because they are the only ones who can help the nation solve the problem of obesity.
“The physical and emotional health of an entire generation and the economic health and security of our nation is at stake,” she said at the launch of the program.
While keeping young people completely away from media is nearly impossible, just how much television should parents allow their children to watch?
“I would recommend that parents follow the advice of the American Academy of Pediatrics and limit media time for kids to no more than one to two hours of quality programming per day whether at home, school or at a child care facility,” said Karen Hunter, spokesperson for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Frederick Zimmerman says that taking simple steps as children grow and develop helps get them used to a set television schedule and makes them excited about exercising.
“Parents should practice limiting children’s media use starting at birth, and introducing TV, movies, and other media only very slowly and carefully,” he said. “Most American children and teenagers see several hours of television per day that isn’t of very good quality. Cutting back on screen time is one of the best (and even most fun) presents that we can give ourselves.
“The more we exercise, the more fun it gets. Watch the teenagers playing pick-up basketball, the kids on their bikes, the girls dancing. You think it isn’t fun? It rocks. And you look a lot less dorky on a bike or a run than you do when you’re sitting slack-jawed in front of the boob tube.”
When it comes to preventing children from spending too much time on media and more time exercising and eating healthy, the simple answer may just be to unplug and get moving.