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Childhood Obesity and the Modern Lifestyle

Updated on July 31, 2016

Throughout the past few decades, different aspects of the world as we know it have expanded: television screens, hard drives, rollercoasters, and airplanes. A few more ever-bloating objects are Big Macs, chairs, Starbucks cups, and dinner plates. Children have also gotten larger. Since 1980, the number of obese children has risen to 16%, or almost one in five kids. Likewise, type II diabetes in children has arisen from practically nothing. Diabetes used to be thought of as a genetic condition that could not be helped. Now, it is a sign that you seriously need to hit the treadmill. The modern lifestyle is the main contributor to the rising childhood obesity crisis because it creates an economy that relies on a strong marketing industry, expects parents to prioritize work over their children’s wellbeing, and allows schools little funding, forcing them to depend on food marketing for resources.

The increased media exposure allows food companies like McDonalds and Hostess more opportunities to reach prospective customers. Children are especially vulnerable to marketing pleas that target them any way they can. Many companies with products aimed at children have come to rely on the fact that many kids sit in front of the television for hours each day. By pairing up with various children’s programs, they create a win-win situation – the company pays the television program for the rights, and then profits because of its increased sales. The group that isn’t factored into this equation is the consumers. The advancement of technology has made hundreds of television channels possible, many running twenty-four hours a day, and a great number aimed towards children. Popular shows like Spongebob Squarepants run daily, and easily force a place in kids’ hearts. New York Times writer David Barboza claims that half of the commercials aired on the popular cartoon advertise food products like Go-Gurt and various sugary cereals. Behind the scenes, the show’s main character is much more than a simple minded, fun-loving sponge who lives in a pineapple. “SpongeBob SquarePants has his own show. But he also sells Kraft Macaroni & Cheese, Popsicles, Kleenex, DVD’s, skateboards, fruit snacks and dozens of other products.”

In supermarkets, the familiar image is tantalizing to kids riding in grocery carts, eyeing different products on the shelves. Once they identify one of the many brightly colored characters as one of their television friends, it is only a matter of pointing before the box is in their cart. Parents are a middleman in this equation. They have a great influence on what their parents purchase. In fact, David Barboza cited professor of marketing at Texas A & M who claimed that children’s influence on what their parents buy is twenty times greater than what they spend on themselves.

The invasive advertising doesn’t stop at the supermarkets. Food marketing companies also use toys such as Play-Doh, bake sets, Barbie dolls, and video games to keep their products at the top of kids’ minds. Product tie-ins can be found almost everywhere in the form of Oreo Cookie counting books, Barbie’s Pizza Hut play set, and other polluted toys. Food market integration with objects children play with has become such an accepted norm that the corporations such as Oreo and Pizza Hut have won their way into everyday life through household objects.

Working parents often find that their jobs limit the time they could be investing in their children’s wellbeing. Over 70% of mothers work, an immense contrast to a few decades ago, when most mothers stayed home to take care of the children. This can lead to an increased “guilt” leniency on the part of the parents that affects their children’s daily activities, levels of physical activity, and the food they eat every day. While many critics blame parents for being negligent to, or responsible for their children’s poor diets, society’s demand for a large workforce puts these parents in a compromising position. Though most care about their children’s wellbeing, many are uninformed about fast food and its detrimental health effects or too busy to do anything about it. Journalist David Zinczenko shares a personal recollection about his experience as an obese teen. “My parents were split up, my dad trying to rebuild his life, my mom working long hours to make the monthly bills. Lunch and dinner, for me, was a daily choice between McDonald’s, Taco Bell, Kentucky Fried Chicken, or Pizza Hut.” After a long day’s work, a seemingly harmless television show can prove a useful distraction to quiet down a restless child. In stores, parents can be equally ineffective. Their children’s requests for “Care Bear this” and “My Little Pony that” can be incessant because of the monopolization of product tie-ins. Though they do have the power to refuse to buy what their children want, sometimes a product including a tie-in is the only option, or their absent-parent guilt comes out. The marketing industry has created a world of product tie-ins and strategically set traps that take advantage of working parents and their television-watching kids, a common scene in 21st century America. Although they do have the power to resist it, not all parents have the financial resources, the time, or the information.

School, which is supposed to be a safe haven for children, has a small market place of its own in the form of vending machines within its walls. Due to tight budgets, bake sales and snack machines have become a necessary source for funding. Though some states have prohibited schools from selling sugary snacks and tooth-decaying beverages, these laws do not stop students from obtaining them anyway. Fast food restaurants realize that they match students’ budgets and tastes, and set up shop near high schools to reel them in. Since most high school students do not have a means of transportation to hunt down healthier food, they revert to the closest restaurant from school. In a Los Angeles Times article by Jerry Hirsch, one ninth-grade McDonalds customer claimed, “I know it’s not very good for you, but I eat it because that is the closest place to school.” Reverting to this default solution for conveniency is a popular decision among high school students, and has proven a direct correlation to the rising rates of obesity among children in this group. Researches from UC Berkley and Columbia University found that the presence of a fast food outlet within walking distance of a high school resulted in a 5.2% increase in student obesity. Fast food restaurants have worked their way into school life by enticing schools with offers for related events such as McTeacher’s Night and KFC Fridays, and simply creating a regular hang out area for students looking for a place to kick back and relax after school.

Unhealthy food has worked its way into the modern day life, and become the convenient norm for a large portion of American families. The average family includes working parents who struggle balancing their work and home lives, and children sent to schools cornered by fast food restaurants nearby. The new “working mother” living an urban lifestyle does not have the time or the skill to sew a ragdoll for her daughter, and the white-collar father cannot carve a train set for his son. What we have here is a country that depends on sugary food on almost every level. The food marketing industry is powerful, sneaky, and effective. Parents are tired, overworked, and uninformed. Schools are drained of resources, desperate, and smothered by marketing ploys. These three facts add up to one crisis: childhood obesity.

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