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Are TV Commercials to Blame?

Photograph by Twenty20

We know to watch what we eat, but a new study suggests kids are eating what they're watching. According to an article published in the Journal of Pediatrics, the more children watch commercial TV advertising kids' fast-food meals with toys, the more likely their family is to visit those fast-food restaurants.

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Researchers from Dartmouth University's Geisel School of Medicine studied a small sample of 100 children 3 to 7 years old from a rural community in 2011 and confirmed what many of us have suspected.

They interviewed parents on how often their child watched each of the four children's TV networks (Nickelodeon, Nicktoons, Cartoon Network and Disney), if their child asked to go to the fast-food chains, if the parents ended up bringing them, and if their child collected toys from the kids' meals. Of those interviewed, 54 percent said their kids requested visits, 37 percent said they visited one of the fast-food restaurants at least monthly and 29 percent collected toys from the restaurants.

This makes us wonder, what ads are the kids seeing and how often to have contributed to this effect? Earlier research from 2009–2010 found 99 percent of fast-food ads directed at kids were for McDonald's and Burger King. And get this: 79 percent of all child-directed fast-food ads aired only on the four kids' channels.

While data from 2009—even 2011—seems relatively old and the fast-food restaurants appear to have reduced TV advertising to children, the study leaves a powerful takeaway on how potent television can be. Children "learn information from television that may be inappropriate or incorrect. ... They are influenced by the thousands of commercials seen each year, many of which are for alcohol, junk food, fast foods and toys," says the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry.

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With increasingly new studies related to fast food (including salt intake and the latest on sugar calories being much worse than other calories), the fact that 1 in 3 kids ages 2 to 19 in the U.S. consume fast food, and the American Academy of Pediatrics' new, more relaxed screen time recommendations, we'll all think twice when the kids ask us when the next trip to the Golden Arches will be.

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