Junk food doesn’t make kids fat - junk parents do
Does anyone else find it quite frankly perverse that in affluent first-world Australia so much time is spent fretting about the supposed weight problems of our children when UNICEF figures show five thousand kids across the globe die every day essentially because they can’t get a clean glass of water?
I sure as hell do. But here we go again. Last week the Rudd Government’s Preventative Health Task Force Report called for a ban on junk food advertising on TV before 9:00pm and for the use of toys, cartoon characters and celebrities that appeal to children to be phased out. But the Australian Communications and Media Authority is against the banning of those TV ads.
The reaction? A seething white-hot fury coming from nice middle class homes all over Sydney. How can anyone possibly put corporate profits before our kids’ health?
Speaking of seething white-hot fury, it was Mark Latham who got the ball rolling when in 2004 he pledged to ban all food and drink advertising during children’s programs. He was backed by the Royal Australasian College of Physicians, The Parents Jury and the Coalition on Food Advertising to Children.
What unites many critiques of marketing to children is a view of childhood as a kind of paradise lost. Real children are portrayed as naturally pure, vulnerable, a part of nature. Adults, on the other hand are corrupted and hardened, especially by the dreary realities of commerce and marketing. These Romantic Age ideas flow from the essays of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and the poetry of William Blake and are clearly still powerful today.
So today’s kids are the slack-jawed, TV-obsessed Generation XXL, gripped by a “national obesity epidemic”. Meanwhile, we imagine the childhood of a generation or two ago as a sweet, rustic Golden Age where kids made their own billy-carts and dreamt of pulling on a battered pair of Volley OC’s and winning the Olympic 100 yard dash.
But let’s take a deep breath and look at some facts. Will banning junk food ads do any good? Or are we looking at a moral panic about marketing to children?
First, it’s simply not true to say that children watch television, films, video games or the Internet like zombies. Children are not passive consumers of popular culture.
Professor David Buckingham of the University of London is the gold standard for research with kids and media. He found that kids aged eight to 12 were not innocent lambs being led to the marketing slaughter. Rather, they were extremely sceptical and downright cynical about the ads they saw on TV. Further, they were only too aware of the persuasive functions of ads and the potential for deception. (For younger kids, in Australia there’s already a blanket ban on advertising in pre-school TV.)
Children are not, in other words, the helpless victims of brainwashing by evil media and marketing companies. Indeed, Buckingham found that advertising has a relatively weak influence on children’s ideas about what food was good; the parents’ socioeconomic status was much more significant.
And when people talk about how advertising is aimed at kids, they always neglect one small but vital fact. Kids don’t have any money.
Ah, but then there’s “pester power” and how it wears parents down. Well, just ask my two sons (aged nine and seven). They’ll tell you that I’m the one with the wallet. My partner and I decide what they eat, and no amount of pestering is going to change that. It’s called parental responsibility and sometimes it’s spelt, “Capital N, Capital O”.
But even if none of this convinces you and you still want to shield your children’s eyes completely from the rapacious world of marketing, then think about this: when are you going to take the blinkers off and re-integrate media into their lives? If you wait until they are 15, 18 or 21, won’t you have young adults who are hopelessly naïve and impressionable and completely unable to understand the subtleties of the media-saturated world into which they will emerge?
The best research shows that marketing plays only a very small role in what children eat. By far the biggest determining factors in a child’s diet are the diet and exercise habits of the parents themselves.
In other words, junk food ads don’t make kids fat – it’s junk parenting.
Banning junk food ads is an easy solution that will certainly make some bureaucrats feel smug and self-assured but it won’t stop one child putting on one extra kilo. Raising the social capital and education levels of parents who find it hard to know what constitutes a good healthy diet for themselves and their kids is a really tough job. But it will get results.
And that’s the job all the experts from the task force should be focusing on – or else, if they really want to make a difference, they should donate their fee to UNICEF.
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