Second Opinion: Helping children tune in to obesity in high definition


Does Ireland really need a new children’s service which is going to make our obesity problem worse?

When Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Frances Fitzgerald TD, recently launched RTÉ’s children’s television, radio, online and mobile service, she was “delighted” and complimented RTÉ on the wonderful initiative.

“I have no doubt that RTÉjr will be entertaining and educational, sparking our children’s imagination and supporting childhood development.”

The new service is aimed at 0-7 year olds and children will be able to watch, listen and play on the website or app, as well as catch up with over 40 hours of children’s content on RTÉ player every day.

This is just what children need: more sitting around instead of getting out and about, playing games and interacting with their peers. Whatever about the entertainment aspects of the new service, it will definitely not support healthy child development.

The Growing Up in Ireland (GUI) study noted that “participation in this type of sedentary activity can have a particularly important impact on a child’s health outcomes” and there is convincing evidence that watching television and computer game use is linked to obesity.

Obesity risk
Obesity risk begins early in life and the poorer the child, the greater the risk. The GUI study found that nine-month-old Irish babies are 12 per cent heavier than the weight recommended by the WHO for their age and 26 per cent of three year olds are overweight or obese.

The main reason is that few babies in Ireland are breastfed and a majority are weaned too early. Children from poorer backgrounds are less likely to be breastfed, more likely to be weaned early, and more likely to experience rapid weight gain in early infancy.

Although 78gms lighter on average at birth, by three years of age children from households where parents never worked are both shorter in height and 200gms heavier than their better-off counterparts.

These children stay stunted all their lives and their weight gain is disproportionate to their height, leading to a higher risk of obesity.

Children don’t grow out of their weight problems and, in fact, more than a third of 13 year olds are on a diet.

Children are not active enough. The Unicef Report Card 2013 showed that almost three-quarters of Irish children aged 11, 13 and 15 spend less than one hour a day engaged in moderate-to-vigorous physical activity. GUI found that only 39 per cent of 13 year olds participated in light (walking, cycling) or hard (jogging, football) exercise on nine or more of the previous 14 days.

Add television, computer and app use into the mix and overall health outcomes for children are poor.

The GUI study found that boys who watch television for three hours or more a day are four times more likely, and girls twice as likely, to be obese than children who watch for less than an hour a day.

Children from poorer families are significantly more likely (56 per cent) to have a TV in their bedroom than those (29 per cent) from better-off and educated households.

We have the perfect storm – overeating, no exercise and children’s programmes from 7am until 7pm.

Occasional use
In fairness to RTÉ the new children’s service looks good and is completely ad free and non-commercial which is great. I have downloaded the app so that my grandchildren can occasionally enjoy what is on offer.

Occasional is the operative word here and if parents are unable to restrict their children’s food intake, will they be able to restrict the time spent on RTÉjr? I doubt it.

Also, children would probably prefer to have a story read to them by real people instead of listening to Storytime , go on one of the great free Coillte walks instead of learning to read a compass on Forest Force , or get a real pet instead of watching The Secret Life of Family Pets .

In addition, a 2011 report, Obesity – a Growing Problem , from the Oireachtas Library and Research Service, notes that reducing the amount of time children spend watching television is one of the top five cost-effective interventions that reduce obesity, along with fat and sugar taxes and a ban on advertising energy-dense, nutrient-poor foods to children.

Yet here we have a Government Minister welcoming a service that will not improve child health outcomes.

Five years from now health experts and policymakers will be wringing their hands wondering why even more children are overweight or obese.