Media Use and Inadequate Sleep Habits: The Disguised Dangers of Childhood Obesity

Zoe Charles

At one point in time, parents would warn their kids about crossing the street without looking both ways. Waving pointed fingers in the air, they would lecture their children about the dangers of talking to strangers or helping to search for “lost dogs” whose owners claimed to be roaming around just outside the local park. Yet these parents did not know of the peril that waited for their children inside the very place they called home. They did not know that their television sets were causing heart attacks or that their afternoon naps were causing strokes. Parents did not know that an increase in media use and inadequate sleep habits are considered not just the unfortunate side effects of childhood obesity, but perhaps the very cause of it. Increased media use and ineffective sleep habits are just as harmful as an unbalanced diet and lack of exercise in terms of causing childhood obesity. Media overload and ineffective sleep are the disguised dangers the developed world needs to be aware of.

In the twenty-first century, children are spending more time than ever engaged with various forms of media. With this surge in said media comes a direct correlation with a growing childhood obesity population.

 According to a study by the Kaiser Family Foundation, it is predicted that the average American child will view “40,000 ads a year on TV.” Of these 40,000 ads, an alarming majority are for “candy, cereal, soda and fast food.”

The Kaiser Family Foundation elaborated on the implications of these statistics.

 “Furthermore, many of the advertising and marketing campaigns enlist children’s favorite TV and movie characters,’’ the study said. These advertisements serve to further convince children to indulge in unhealthy eating habits.

Author of the book “Childhood Obesity,”  Bonnie Juettner writes that the vast temptation these commercials invoke in children is extremely concerning.

According to Juettner, studies report that “the appetites of children of normal weights increased by eighty-four percent” and that “overweight children’s appetites increased by 101 percent” after watching said commercial.

As one could assume with the cyber world becoming more prominent, the constant increase in the media for the advertisement of fattening foods has led to the rise of unhealthy consumption.

According to the same book by Juettner, “In the last twenty years, childhood obesity has doubled in the United States.” Now one might claim that this “doubling” in the childhood obesity rate is just the result of a few over-lenient parents and an ever-growing population of technology-addicted kids, however that is not the case.

The frightening truth is that even if children are not constantly watching commercials scrolling across their devices that are encouraging unhealthy eating habits, media can still pose a threat in the risk of childhood obesity.

Juttner continues in her book to say that researchers have found that the use of media yields a higher “risk of obesity” when compared to other sedentary activities such as reading or sewing. While there is no discernible scientific evidence as to why this is so, researchers hypothesize this is because “children tend to snack on foods with little or no nutritional value while they are watching television.” Whereas children would not be as inclined to do so during an activity requiring more intense focus or dedication. The impact of media on childhood obesity is becoming more and more prevalent.

Tish Davidson, a professional educational writer and editor with a Master’s degree in Biology, claimed in her article titled “Childhood Obesity” that while childhood obesity “is growing fastest in the United States,” the amount of youth affected by this condition “is increasing throughout most of the developed world.” This said world is the same developed world that one could easily associate with a growing childhood reliance on technology.

According to an article by the Kaiser Family Foundation, Vicky Rideout, Vice President and Director of the Kaiser Family Foundation’s Program for the Study of Entertainment Media and Health, stated “While media is only one of many factors that appear to be affecting childhood obesity, it’s an important piece of the puzzle.”

The diet and exercise habits a child possesses most definitely draw parallels to the likelihood of obesity in said child, however the amount of time an individual is spending enamored by technology and media is just as important when determining this risk. The increased use of media and how it is constructed throughout society is a driving force behind the skyrocketing childhood obesity rates in industrialized countries and the dieting danger that this technology produces is something that can no longer afford to be ignored by parents and esteemed health professionals alike.

In addition to increased media use, inadequate periods of sleep are thought to raise the likelihood of obesity in children. The science behind the effects of sleep patterns on childhood obesity rely on that fact that, according to Juttner’s book, “when people do not get enough sleep, their bodies produce more ghrelin—a hormone that tells the body it is hungry.” Subsequently, when this ghrelin hormone is produced, people often tend to overeat.

 Not only do people eat more, but according to Dr. Emmanuel Mignot, director at the Center for Sleep Sciences and Medicine at Stanford University,  other studies found that “when you are sleep deprived, you seem to prefer snack food, as opposed to healthy food.” In the short-term, such irregular sleep patterns would not have a considerable impact, however over the course of time these sleep patterns, or rather lack of sleep patterns, could prove detrimental.

According to Juttner’s book, one New Zealand study observed 519 children from birth to age seven. In 2008, when the study concluded, researchers eagerly announced their findings that “children who got less than nine hours of sleep at night were more likely to be overweight or obese.” Deniers of the inadequate sleep influence may claim that these findings were due to a variety of factors, including increased media use and decreased exercise activity. However, the same study concluded that “the results were the same even after the researchers compared the amount of time kids spent watching television and exercising” and that “children who do not get enough sleep are about three times as likely to become overweight or obese.”

Studies like the New Zealand case captivated Janice Bell, a highly respected researcher at the University of Washington, which lead her to conduct research herself. Rather than focus on the amount of sleep children were getting, Bell investigated the importance of when the sleep was taking place. Among younger children still partaking in regular napping periods, Bell found that daytime “napping didn’t have any effect on [the young children’s] later obesity, whereas the nighttime sleep was significant,” according to a NPR radio program.

When addressing Bell’s findings in that same radio program, Dr. Mignot voices that the different effects on obesity based on daytime versus nighttime sleep was simply due to the fact that “daytime sleep is qualitatively different.” Mignot then elaborated on his point.

“Sleep is better during the night. In fact, body temperature already drops so the . . . sleep that we have at night  . . is always more restorative, deeper, than if you try to sleep during the day,” Mignot said.

As  the world becomes more educated regarding causes behind childhood obesity, it is easy to see that the typical “diet and exercise” factors are not the only major culprits to blame. Something as simple as lower quality sleep can significantly raise the risk for childhood obesity. Now, one might try to argue the authenticity of these claims, but nowadays even a quick google search could confirm the legitimacy of these findings.

 For both young children and adolescents alike, the various data concerning inadequate sleep habits is incredibly alarming and one has to wonder just how many of the approximately twelve million children suffering from obesity or being overweight are victims of the inadequate sleep influence. Whether it is how long the sleep lasts or what time the sleep takes place, it is astonishing to know that inadequate periods of sleep and sleep patterns are so important to the physical well-being of the developing child.

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