Are Our Kids Becoming Couch Potatoes?

Go Play Outside! - Ipsos-Reid Survey on the way that kids are spending their leisure time

Today's children are spending more and more time in front of computer and TV consoles, and less time out on a soccer field or baseball diamond. At the same time, obesity among children is on the rise. Coincidence? Maybe, but probably not. In this article, Ipsos-Reid shares some of their findings on the way that kids are spending their leisure time, and suggests that food and beverage manufacturers have a great opportunity to market more nutritious snacks for today's more sedentary children.

If you had a childhood that was anything like mine, your parents would urge you to go play outside when you'd been hanging around the house bugging them for too long or whining about "being bored." As little as twenty years ago, such a command was a parent's best chance at getting some peace and quiet and tiring out their hyperactive children in the process.

Things have changed. There are a thousand ways for kids to entertain themselves these days on their own. The thing is, today's "play" often involves a technological device rather than a backyard or stretch of grass. This change is affecting kids' behavior, psychology, and health. Regarding the last area, many experts are tracing a link between high amounts of media watching/playing among children and increased risk for obesity.

Childhood obesity has been increasing at the same rate as it has in adults. In fact, it has been estimated that up to one-quarter of children and teens are overweight in the U.S. One of the major reasons for the onset of obesity in children is bad eating habits as well as inadequate exercise. A recent Ipsos-Reid Global Express survey found that many young people across the world are devoting scant time to exercising, which for some children (depending on their genes) can provoke a dangerous slide into weight gain.

Consider these findings:

  • The youth (aged 12 to 24) we polled in 17 countries devote just over 5 hours per week to playing sports or exercising.
  • Only young Italians, Argentines, Canadians, and Chinese reported being physically active for more than 6 hours per week.
  • Brazilian, Dutch, and South Korean youth spend under 4 hours per week exerting themselves physically.
  • Girls, in particular, are not getting enough exercise; they spend an average of 2 hours less per week than boys do in physical activity.
  • As young people leave childhood and enter adolescence, their activity levels decrease.

And now these:

  • Global youth spend an average of over two hours a day listening to music.
  • They also devote an average of over two hours a day to watching TV.
  • Taken together, the activities of reading, listening to music, and watching TV consume 5.5 hours per day as an average across the entire sample.
  • Global youth are spending more time in extra-curricular activities such as those described above than on family activities or even school-related activities.

Findings like these point to global youth becoming more and more immersed in the virtual world of play and leisure time. This isn't an entirely new development, as the introduction of TV years before this significantly changed children's orientation toward more sedentary pursuits. But now that computers and other technologies have joined the television as a distraction, we are seeing this trend toward immobile play intensify.

This isn't to say that "computer/TV play time is inherently bad." It's just that parents need to be finding ways of encouraging their children to balance this time with more active games. And if they aren't entirely successful, a different approach to nutrition should be considered.

Sugared cereals, pop-up tarts, candy and the like used to be foods that were the purview of children, to be outgrown to some extent once they became adults. But with children now leading lifestyles as inactive as many adults', parents might do well to consider healthier alternatives as snacks. Research has shown that overweight children have a much bigger chance than normal-weight children do of being fat for the rest of their lives. This means that the health complications associated with obesity are exacerbated, as they continue for longer, even indefinite, periods of time.

Experts are already saying that an epidemic of obesity among children (and adults) is afflicting the populations of developed countries, especially among disadvantaged classes. Aside from this being a sad and frightening trend, there are ways for food and beverage manufacturers and marketers to both contribute to reducing the severity of the problem and tap into a new and promising market:

Marketing Implications

  • There is a developing market out there for nutritious foods for children. These foods can still be marketed in a fun way to appeal to children, but their health benefits should be emphasized in the packaging for parents. "Lunchable" snacks (i.e., packaged and ready-to-serve) can still be tasty, but have lower caloric and fat levels.
  • School cafeterias and other centers where children congregate are other markets for nutritious foods.
  • If marketers wanted to be community- and altruistically motivated, they might consider using sports heroes in their marketing, and emphasize the "coolness" of participating in sports as well as in technologically-oriented games. Parents who are trying to keep their children balanced and at healthy weights would appreciate this type of marketing.
  • Marketers of sports gear, clubs, and camps should be aware that they have more of a challenge now than at almost any other time in the past few decades of getting kids' attention. Ironically enough, the very competitive threats to their business--Internet and television--are the very mediums they must use to get their message across.

Kiley Turner Editor, Ipsos-Reid

Ipsos-Reid is a leading North American market and public opinion research firm with global capabilities in 80 countries and offices across the continent. The study upon which this article is based is called Global Express, and it is a global omnibus that runs four times a year in as many as 50 countries. For more information about Global Express or other Ipsos-Reid capabilities, please call:

Ed Morawski, Ipsos-Reid, New York (212-265-3200) or e-mail [email protected].

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