In the US, 17% of children consume fast food burgers daily; the more children watch commercial TV networks airing ads for children’s fast food meals, the more frequently families will visit those restaurants, especially if a toy is involved, according to research published in The Journal of Pediatrics

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Children’s food choices are influenced by adverts on TV, suggests a new study.

Fast food companies have frequently participated in child-directed marketing that targets those under the age of 12.

In 2009, 90% of that advertising was through television. Exposure to TV adverts has been found to affect children’s food choices, but the exact mechanism is not yet known.

Children’s meals are promoted on TV with adverts featuring toys, and it has been suggested that this may prompt children to request eating at fast food restaurants.

Jennifer A. Emond, PhD, and colleagues from the Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth, NH, set out to assess the associations between children’s exposure to television networks that air adverts for children’s fast food meals, the toy premiums and frequency of family visits to those restaurants.

By compiling a database of all fast food TV ads that aired nationally in 2009, they found that only two nationally recognized fast food chains engaged in child-directed TV advertising at that time; and 79% of the child-directed ads from those two restaurants aired on just four children’s networks.

The researchers enrolled 100 children aged 3-7 years and one of their parents in the study, from a rural pediatrics clinic during 2011.

The parents completed a survey that included questions about how often their children watched each of the four children’s networks; if their children requested visits to the two restaurants; if their children collected toys from those restaurants; and how often the family visited those restaurants.

Researchers found that the more children watched television channels that aired ads for children’s fast food meals, the more frequently their families visited those fast food restaurants, with 37% of parents reporting monthly visits and 54% of the children requesting visits to at least one of the restaurants.

Thirty seven percent of parents reported more frequent visits to the two fast food restaurants with child-directed TV ads. Of the 29% of children who collected toys from the restaurants, almost 83% had requested to visit one or both of the restaurants.

Some factors that correlated with more frequent visits were more TVs in the home, a TV in the child’s bedroom, more time spent watching TV during the day and more time spent watching one of the four children’s networks airing the majority of child-directed ads.

Greater child commercial TV viewing was significantly associated with more frequent family visits to those fast food restaurants; toy collecting partially mediated that positive association.

Limitations of the study include the fact that it took place in a rural area – where visits to fast food restaurants are fewer, possibly due to less availability – and the small number of participants.

However, the study confirms a link between child-directed TV advertising for fast food restaurants offering toys, and visits to those restaurants. It also shows that children’s food preferences may be partially shaped by a desire for the toys featured in TV ads.

Dr. Emond notes:

For now, our best advice to parents is to switch their child to commercial-free TV programming to help avoid pestering for foods seen in commercials.”

Medical News Today recently reported that fast food consumption during childhood can lead to poorer bone development.