Kids' TV Viewing Habits Tied to Smoking Habits Later
TUESDAY, Sept. 3 (HealthScoutNews) -- A new study that combines two hallmarks of a dangerously sedentary lifestyle for people of any age finds that adolescent couch potatoes are far likelier to start smoking than kids with more restricted viewing hours.
Researchers say children who spend at least five hours a day parked in front of the tube are six times more likely to begin puffing than their peers who watch two hours or less.
The cigarette habit begins in just two years, according to the study, which appears in the September issue of Pediatrics. The figures held up even after other risk factors for smoking -- lower income, intelligence and how many years of education the mother had -- were taken into account.
"The more exposure, the more likely they were to initiate smoking," says Dr. Pradeep P. Gidwani, a pediatrician at the Center for Child Outcomes in San Diego and the study's lead author. "Television watching may have an influence on risk behaviors in adolescents."
Gidwani says his study didn't aim to finger television as a smoking gun for smoking among adolescents.
"It's a little hard for us to say this is a cause of it," he says. But the link, he cautions, is inescapable, because children are still exposed to smoking on TV, even though cigarette ads were banished from the airwaves more than 30 years ago.
His team followed 558 kids between the ages of 10 and 15 -- with a median age of 11.5 years -- from 1990 until 1992. By the end of the study, none had yet reached their 18th birthday.
The study found what it called "a clear trend" in the initiation of smoking and the number of daily hours of TV viewing.
Those who watched between two and four hours a day were between two and three times at risk of starting the habit, a figure Gidwani says isn't statistically significant but nonetheless telling.
The real danger zone started at the four-hour level, when the risk rose to five times that of kids who watched two hours or less.
White children who watched excessive amounts of TV were more at risk of starting smoking than were blacks or Hispanics, the study says. Also, it found that children of married mothers were at half the risk of starting as were children of unmarried mothers.
The researchers chose the two-hour level as the baseline because the American Academy of Pediatrics has recommended that children watch no more than that amount every day.
"You're looking at TV as indirect advertising," Gidwani says. Smoking is "everywhere," including music videos, billboards at televised sporting events, and prime-time programs.
"Rarely is smoking portrayed in an unattractive manner or associated with negative consequences," the study says, adding it often linked with "sexually suggestive" viewing.
"You have to remember, too, that there's old movies -- and people are watching old movies," Gidwani says. Smoking is prevalent even in family films, he adds, noting a study finding that characters smoked in 43 percent of a sample of G-rated films.
The weakness in the study, Gidwani acknowledges, is that it didn't ask the children or the parents what they were watching: Is a child less likely to take up smoking, for instance, if he spends those five hours watching C-Span? Still, he maintains, the amount of viewing is more important than the content.
Moreover, Gidwani says, time spent watching TV is time not spent doing something else that may guard against risky behavior -- sports, for instance.
"They're not interacting with their parents," he adds. "They're not interacting with adult role models." He adds he realizes many of these parents may be watching TV along with the children.
"Being a parent is a very tough job," he says. "Limiting the amount of hours of television is another battle with your kids."