Children who spend more than half an hour online a day are almost twice as likely to pester their parents for junk food, a study found.
Those who spend more than three hours a day on computers, tablets and smartphones were more than four times as likely to spend their pocket money on junk food as those with limited screen time.
These youngsters are almost 80 per cent more likely to be overweight or obese, according to research conducted by Cancer Research UK.
Experts say the findings add to growing evidence that junk-food marketing is helping to fuel rising levels of childhood obesity.
This is putting them at far higher risk of 13 types of cancers in later life, including breast, bowel and oesophageal.
Children who spend more than half an hour online a day are almost twice as likely to pester their parents for junk food. These are also up to 80 per cent more likely to be obese (stock)
Researchers from the University of Liverpool and Cancer Research UK’s Cancer Policy Research Centre asked almost 2,500 seven to 11-year-olds and their parents about their screen time and eating habits.
On average, children were online for 16 hours a week in addition to time spent for homework and watched 22 hours of television per week.
Each additional hour of commercial TV that children watched was linked with an increased likelihood of pestering their parents to buy products they had seen advertised.
They were four times more likely to buy chocolate and over three times more likely to buy sugary drinks if they watched more than three hours of commercial TV every day compared to youngsters who watched less.
They were also more than half more likely – 59 per cent – to be obese or overweight.
Around one in three Year six children are overweight or obese and one in every 25 is severely obese.
The amount of exercise made no difference to the results, suggesting the excess weight was not linked with being sedentary in this study.
Dr Emma Boyland, a lead researcher from the University of Liverpool, said: ‘Young children who spend more time on the Internet and watching commercial TV are more likely to pester for, buy and eat unhealthy food and drinks.
CHILDREN CAN PICK UP BAD EATING HABITS FROM YOUTUBE STARS
Children who watch videos of social media personalities are more likely to eat junk food, recent research showed.
Those who see their favourite online stars eating unhealthy food in videos eat nearly an extra 100 calories – 26 per cent more – when choosing a snack.
Scientists found children who watched YouTube stars such as Zoella and Alfie Deyes, both of whom have millions of online followers, made less healthy food choices.
Experts say children may find it difficult to tell what is an advert and what is the stars’ normal behaviour, because online advertising is more subtle than on television.
The research comes as celebrities are calling for the Government to crack down on how much junk food advertising is seen by children.
‘Our research shows that this behaviour can be linked to the amount of time children spend in front of a screen and as a result, the increased number of enticing adverts they see for these sorts of products.’ The second part of the government’s childhood obesity strategy includes consultations on 9pm watershed for unhealthy food adverts on TV and possible tougher regulations for on-demand and online adverts.
Dr Jyotsna Vohra, Cancer Research UK’s head of cancer policy research, said: ‘Obesity is the biggest preventable cause of cancer in the UK after smoking so it’s vital we see a 9pm watershed on junk food adverts on TV and similar protection for children viewing adverts on-demand and online.
‘The evidence suggests that time spent online, where advertising can be prolific, and watching commercial TV increases the likelihood that children will pester for, buy and eat more unhealthy foods. If they didn’t then the food industry wouldn’t spend so much on advertising.’
The report comes just days after official figures show more than a third – 197,888 – of children in England leave primary school overweight or obese.
Of these, there are more than 24,000 severely obese children in the final year of primary, the equivalent of more than one in every classroom.
Obese children are likely to become obese adults, putting them at risk of serious health problems including type 2 diabetes, heart disease, stroke and certain types of cancer, such as breast and colon.
Caroline Cerny, of the Obesity Health Alliance, said: ‘We know that children can see as many as nine junk food adverts during one 30 minute episode of their favourite TV shows, so it’s not surprising that this leads them to pester for, buy and eat more unhealthy foods.
‘This is having an effect on obesity rates in children, putting them at risk of a range of diseases as they get older.
‘But we can do something about this – bringing in a 9pm watershed on junk food adverts on TV and similar measures online will protect children from these types of advert and give them a better chance of growing up healthy.’