Could the Internet Hold the Key to Curbing the Obesity Epidemic in Kids?

Healthnotes Newswire (September 10, 2009)—Internet-based computer advertising games—or advergames, as they’re called—might be a key component in turning the tide of the childhood obesity epidemic.

According to an Institute of Medicine report, television advertising is a well-established medium for “influencing food preferences and purchase requests for high-calorie, low-nutrient foods, patterns that are linked to childhood obesity.” Less is known about the impact of Internet advertising and games in these areas.

If you advertise it, they’ll eat it

Thirty low income African-American children (average age 9.5 years) were assigned to play one of two different versions of a video game. One version rewarded the children with more points for having their video character eat healthy foods like bananas, apples, orange juice, and baby carrots. The other version rewarded them for having their character eat less nutritious foods such as potato chips, soda, candy bars, and chocolate chip cookies. Afterward, the children answered questions about how often and for what purposes they used the computer, and they were offered some of the snacks depicted in the video games.

Children who played the “healthier version” of the game ate significantly more healthy snacks (90% of these children chose at least one healthy snack) than did those who played the less healthy version. These results were encouraging, or alarming, depending on what was being advertised. “With only ten minutes of exposure, our results revealed that children selected and ate whatever snacks were being marketed by the advergames, healthy or not,” said Georgetown University researchers in the study that was published in the Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine.

“Concerns about online advergames that market unhealthy foods are justified,” said the authors. On the flip side, this inexpensive form of advertising has the potential to reach a huge proportion of the young public and effect positive change in children’s eating habits.

Healthy eating starts at home

Parents have more influence over children’s food choices than their peers do, especially in the early years.

Be the eater you want them to be. Nothing speaks louder than our actions, and children are sure to pick up on our inconsistencies when it comes to food. Set a healthy eating example by focusing your own diet on whole grains, fruits and veggies, legumes, and naturally raised meats, eggs, and dairy products.

Hold the line. As the people responsible for stocking the pantry, parents have the choice about what to buy. If shopping with kids becomes a battle, try to visit the store after they go to bed, and if that’s not possible, try to concentrate on the store aisles that have fewer “character” food products.

Have some fun. Make eating a time of celebration, not deprivation. Let kids choose a treat every once in a while and serve it in a way that allows the fun of anticipation and celebration, so it stays special.

(Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med 2009;163:633–7)

Kimberly Beauchamp, ND, earned her bachelor’s degree from the University of Rhode Island and her Doctorate of Naturopathic Medicine from Bastyr University in Kenmore, WA. She cofounded South County Naturopaths in Wakefield, RI, and now sees patients in East Greenwich and Wakefield. Inspired by her passion for healthful eating and her own young daughters, Dr. Beauchamp is currently writing a book about optimizing children’s health through better nutrition.

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