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Zina Saunders /

Want to turn a healthy child into a depressed and overweight youngster? Easy. Expose him to commercials. That’s the conclusion of a growing body of research, according to psychologist Yosef Brody, writing in the November 2010 issue of Z Magazine.

American children are increasingly the targets of commercial media: In this country, Z reports, “expenditures on marketing to children skyrocketed from $2 billion in 1999 to $15 billion in 2004.” And marketers aren’t just hawking breakfast cereal and video games. Adult purchases of big-ticket items like cars and vacations increasingly are influenced by children’s desires.

Brody cites the research of Juliet Schor, a professor of sociology at Boston College and the author of Born to Buy: The Commercialized Child and the New Consumer Culture. Schor discovered that as healthy children are exposed to commercial media messages, their mental health declines, while emotionally disturbed children who are weaned from a commercial diet generally enjoy an improved outlook.

This is hardly breaking news, of course. In 2006 the journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics published a policy statement denouncing advertising aimed at youth, citing its contribution to obesity, poor nutrition, and cigarette and alcohol use. And it’s long been established that children under the age of 6 simply can’t distinguish between advertising and other forms of media. As far back as the 1970s, according to the academy report, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission deemed it “unfair and deceptive” to advertise to these age groups.

Such data already have resulted in media regulation in Sweden, which bans all television advertising aimed at children under 12, and other countries. The United States lags far behind in protecting its kids from harmful media. In 1990 Congress limited the number of minutes that can be devoted to television commercials to 12 per hour on weekdays and 10.5 on weekends.

According to Brody, limited regulation isn’t nearly enough–especially when new media like the Internet are taken into consideration. Given the alarming decline in mental and physical health among children in the United States, Brody writes, parents should be lobbying for stricter regulation and improved media literacy campaigns in schools.

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