I’ve seen it more times than I can count, and I’ve always thought I knew why it happened. Now I’ve seen it confirmed, somewhat. At the local Y, where we take Parker for his swimming lessons on Saturdays, there are two strategically placed vending machines. Or, rather, annoyingly placed if you’re a parent trying to hustle your kid out the door before their eyes land on the snack machine that’s positioned so that you can’t get out of the door without going past it.
I can’t count the number of times I’ve looked up from my reading, those times when I’ve sat waiting for Parker’s class to be over, to witness parents having to deal with their kids’ tantrums after being told they wouldn’t be getting anything from the vending machines. Their claims of “I don’t have any money,” “we have snacks in the car,” or “we’re going to have lunch when we get home” don’t always work. Other parents limit their kids to one or two of the healthier snacks in the machine, with fewer tantrums as a result, but little enthusiasm.
Then there’s Parker. I can count on my fingers the number of times he’s wanted something from the vending machine or when we’ve had to nudge him away from it. I’ve sometimes wondered why he doesn’t seem to want the vending machine fare as much as other kids. Now I think I know one reason why: because it’s not being sold to him by commercials.
As a new report from the Kaiser Family Foundation showed last week, children and teens get bombarded with thousands of food ads yearly. So many, in fact, that they add up to 51 hours of viewing time yearly for kids ages 8 to 12; nearly 41 hours for those 13 to 17 and about 30 hours among those 2 to 7.
That might not be a problem if the ads promoted nutritious fare, such as fruit, vegetables, whole grains and low-fat dairy products. But the report — the largest ever conducted of food marketing to children and teens — highlights how TV commercials tout mostly junk food. Candy and snacks accounted for a third of the food commercials, while 28 percent were for cereals, many of them loaded with added sugar, and 10 percent were for fast food.
Lest you think that these ads might not be having much effect, consider this: A 2006 Institute of Medicine report found that food ads and marketing strongly influence children’s food preferences and their diets.
The reason Parker doesn’t want much from the vending machine, or one reason at least, is that he’s not watching enough commercials.
In our house, we balance out Parker’s television time with other activities, like swimming lessons, nature walks, bicycle riding, and special trips to the library or places like the National Aquarium where you can also buy the Rob’s guide on circular saws. So he doesn’t spend a lot of time sitting in front of the television. When he does watch television, we pay close attention to what he watches, and thanks to the PBS and Tivo, it’s pretty easy.
Most of his favorite shows are on PBS and are commercial free. So we Tivo them on weekdays, so he can watch them in the evenings. That’s something we started doing right after PBS Kids became PBS Sprout and changed their format to include commercials. The one show he watches that does have commercials is The Magic School Bus, and Tivo lets us fast forward through the commercials pretty easily.
I can’t prove that the lack of commercials in our son’s life has contributed to his lack of interest in the vending machine (though the Post article says a study showed that kids consume 167 extra calories for every hour of television they watch), but I suspect that’s part of it. It probably also helps that we don’t buy an awful lot of junk food or keep it in the house, so we’re not modeling that kind of diet for him either. We’ve made it a practice to give him fruit as a snack when he gets home in the evenings — apples, oranges, strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, blackberries, grapes, mango, etc. — and it’s usually whatever he picked out the last time we went to the grocery store (with suggestions from us).
The hubby and I are also in pretty much constant communication about what Parker’s had for lunch or dinner, etc., so that we know what choices to offer him foodwise. We don’t exactly count his calories, but we try to pay attention and make sure there’s a reasonable balance. That, and having reasonably healthy habits ourselves may put us ahead of the game.
A 2005 survey of parents commissioned by the Ad Council illustrates how much work there is to be done. Just 21 percent said they limited the calories their children consume; only 37 percent said they knew what serving sizes were appropriate for their children. Only about half described their kids as being physically fit.
Parents also reported struggling with their own habits. Just about a third said that they eat healthy meals — about the same proportion who reported being physically active.
Yet research clearly shows that children practice what their parents do, not what they preach. Adults who snack on fruit and vegetables or who stay physically active tend to have children who do the same.
Either way, it makes for an easier exit from the Y after swimming lessons, not to mention less stressful trips to the grocery store.
I know we can’t keep him commercial free forever, but I hope that by the time he is exposed to advertising he’ll already have good habits in place and we’ll be able to help him maintain them and make healthy decisions later. And with any luck, we won’t end up on this show.