Mashing the ‘couch potato’ myth

The claim that playing computer games is making kids fat is thin on evidence.

Michael Gard

Topics Books

In the midst of increased interest about childhood overweight and obesity, the term ‘couch potato’ has become ubiquitous. Commentators lament that children are lying around and playing computer games rather than running around outside – and argue that this is making kids fat.

But in actual fact, there is little empirical support for the idea that televisions and computers are responsible for childhood overweight and obesity. The talk about ‘couch potatoes’ tells us less about reality, than about the new ideologies that dominate public life.

Nobody talks much about ‘ideology’ these days. It is a word that has drifted out of fashion, in part because standard ‘right’ and ‘left’ wing ‘ideologies’ are no longer seen as relevant to modern Western life. And yet, even though we may not call them ‘ideologies’, most of us have our favourite ideas and theories about how the world works and what makes people tick. As well as helping us to get through life, preconceived ideas about the world can lead us astray. In this vein, the idea of the ‘couch potato’ has the potential to prevent many of us who work with children and physical activity from thinking carefully and acting wisely.

In this essay I will attempt to answer two questions. First, why is the image of the ‘couch potato’ used so regularly when people talk about children? Second, to what extent has the image of the ‘couch potato’ caused people to exaggerate, or at least misunderstand, the problem of childhood overweight and obesity?

The growth of a term

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the term ‘couch potato’ first appeared in print in a December 1979 edition of the Los Angeles Times. Since then, it has become an increasingly familiar term for a person who spends a great deal of time engaged in sedentary pursuits, and little time exercising. Although there does not seem to be any particular reason why the term ‘couch potato’ is used rather than, say, ‘couch tomato’, a person is presumably a ‘couch potato’ because living this way is said to make you round like a potato (it could also have something to do with the association of potatoes with high-calorie food like potato chips).

‘Couch potato’ now rolls easily off the tongues of politicians, researchers and doctors whenever discussion turns to overweight and obesity. Indeed, the ‘couch potato’ is often described as the phenomenon at the heart of the ‘obesity epidemic’. The suggestion here appears to be that if we could only eliminate the ‘couch potatoes’ we would greatly reduce overweight and obesity and improve the health of nations.

‘Couch potato’ kids are a particular concern. Media reports repeatedly claim that children today are not only fatter than those of previous generations, but less athletically skilled, less interested in physical activity and more addicted to ‘junk food’ and technology such as television and computers. In this context, the ‘couch potato’ is the perfect catchall, condensing everything that is supposedly wrong with today’s children into one easily digested image. Newspaper and magazine articles regularly lament the sorry state of today’s youth with headlines such as ‘Couch potato kids’, ‘Schools rear crop of couch potatoes’, and ‘Generation XXL’ (1) – accompanied by photographs of children watching television while consuming junk food. The message is clear: today’s children are fat because they are lazy and gluttonous.

The extent to which the idea of the ‘couch potato’ has colonised people’s thinking is striking. In an article for The Times (London) back in 2000, (headlined ‘£150m bid to get couch potatoes into school gym’) John Goodbody reported on a government plan to provide money to improve Britain’s success at elite sport:

‘The government launched a £150 million pound plan yesterday which it hopes will help young “couch potatoes” to become world-class athletes…. The joint move by the culture and education departments makes sport in schools a priority and the basis for the international success and the health of the nation. David Blunkett, the education secretary, said: “We have a challenge on our hands, not least because the ethos of couch potatoes is something that we will have to overcome”.’ (2)

What we appear to have here is the blanketing of an entire generation with the accusation of ‘couch potato-ism’ to the point that children have developed a kind of group mentality, an ‘ethos’. Note also the claim that ‘We have a challenge on our hands’, implying that the ‘they’ have become so addicted to their couch potato ways that they are unlikely to want to change and do what’s good for them.

This stereotype is articulated even more directly in Sian Powell’s article headlined ‘One in four Australian children is overweight. Slower, stiffer, heavier – they are the cotton-wool generation’ for the Weekend Australian newspaper. She writes:

‘Driven to school, picked up from school, kept off the dangerous streets and away from the dangerous parks, they are the cotton-wool generation and, often the only physical exercise they get is when their parents have time to supervise. A child these days doesn’t break an arm falling off his billycart, he develops a bad case of Nintendo thumb – a recognised medical problem. The average Australian child aged 5-13 spends between two and three hours a day watching television, lying supine, soaking up advertisements for high-fat junk food. These are the real telly tubbies. If we follow in American footsteps, as we so often do, TV viewing will increase, to slowly soak up almost all the leisure hours of children.’ (3)

Virtually all of the press coverage on this issue quotes ‘experts’, many of whom seem equally fond of making sensationalist claims. For example, the following expert view, which appeared in Australia’s the Sun-Herald, seems serenely unencumbered by what we might think of as traditional academic reluctance to generalise:

‘“The kitchen never shuts in many houses. Gone are the days when children asked for things, and parents seem to have difficulty saying no.” Children are also less active, said Martha Lourey Bird, a Weight Watchers spokeswoman and academic with a background in childhood obesity. “Christmas day is a classic example”, she said. “Before we would be outdoors, playing with our new toys all afternoon. Now, kids are more likely to be indoors, playing on the computer.”’ (4)

Technology, particularly televisions and computers, are central to these media constructions of ‘couch potato-ism’. There is an assumption that technology causes obesity and that more advanced and elaborate forms of technology lead to even more obesity. Yet I have never seen this assumption accompanied by supporting evidence.

The science of ‘couch potato-ism’

It is quite possible that the avalanche of generalisations, stereotypes and hyperbole about children, technology and obesity seem to be common sense for many readers. After all, if we hear something often enough, no matter how outrageous or fanciful, it may settle into the background of our consciousnesses and become, as it were, part of the intellectual furniture of our lives.

Summarising the basic assumptions that underpin the ideology of ‘couch potato-ism’ makes its absurdities clearer to see.

‘Couch potato-ism’ rests on a belief that the more time people spend using technology, particularly televisions and computers, the less time they will spend being physically active. Furthermore, ‘couch potato-ism’ holds that because technology is becoming more sophisticated, children are less able to resist technology’s lure, and are more likely to spend more time using technology, less time doing physical activity and, therefore, more likely to be obese. In short, the belief is that more time being sedentary equals less time being active.

The assumption that technology causes childhood obesity, and the stereotype that today’s children are more addicted to technology (and therefore fatter) than previous generations, are alive and well in the scientific literature. Writing in the Medical Journal of Australia, Louise Baur makes the unreferenced claims that increasing childhood and adolescent obesity is in part caused by ‘The rise of sedentary pursuits, such as watching television or using computers’ as well as ‘A move away from traditional foods and eating patterns’ (5). An almost identical unreferenced claim is made by Richard S Strauss and Harold A Pollack in The Journal of the American Medical Association (6). Having analysed a data set that suggests that the incidence of childhood overweight in the USA increased between 1986 and 1998, they conclude: ‘Like many other preventable adverse health states, childhood overweight reflects the convergence of many biological, economic, and social factors. Overweight arises from multiple causes, some as intimate as the family dinner table, others as seductive as television or the latest children’s video game.’

Almost as if it were a reflex response, journalists and some scientific researchers alike blame technology and changes to family life for childhood obesity. Of course, Strauss and Pollock might say that they were arguing that these factors contribute to the problem of childhood obesity, rather than being the sole cause. But there is a sleight of hand here. By composing a veritable ‘shopping list’ of causal factors, commentators throw in anything that comes into their head. This shopping list explanation and the use of vague phrases such as a ‘complex’, ‘convergence of factors’ relieves the speaker of the responsibility of showing exactly how and to what extent each individual factor contributes.

A similar reflex can also be seen in the numerous studies that have examined the connection between television, computers and childhood obesity. Despite empirical findings that continue to be, at best, highly equivocal about the relationship between technology and childhood obesity, the papers keep coming. It is possible that the number of research papers devoted to this issue has more to do with people’s preconceived beliefs, than the weight of scientific evidence.

A research paper published in 1999 by Hernández et al in the International Journal of Obesity illustrates my point. The paper reports on a study of 712 Mexican children that sought to find out whether there was a relationship between obesity levels and the amount of time spent watching television and videos and using videogames. The results section of the paper’s abstract read: ‘Physical activity and television viewing, but not VCR/videogames use, were related to obesity prevalence in Mexican children 9-16 y old.’ (7)

Yet the paper itself reveals that the researchers found no relationship between the time children spent watching television and the amount of physical activity they did. That is, although children who watched more television were more likely to be obese, it was not because they did less physical activity. The researchers also divided the children in the study into low- and middle-income groups. They found that the middle-income group did more physical activity than the low-income group, spent more time watching videos and playing videogames and were more likely to be overweight. In other words, not only did the group who did the most physical activity turn out to be the most obese, but the group that did the most physical activity also spent the most time using videos and videogames.

What is interesting is that the findings that contradicted conventional wisdom about technology and childhood obesity were apparently not considered sufficiently important to be included in the paper’s abstract. Instead, the researchers chose to highlight the one element of the study that supported conventional wisdom – that television viewing was ‘related’ to obesity. And it is not until the last page of the study that the researchers concede that they were unable to say anything about whether television viewing causes obesity or the reverse. In spite of an absence of any association between television viewing and physical activity, the researchers still speculate about a number of other reasons why television may ‘cause’ obesity. They describe these theories as ‘plausible, although unproven’. While they speculate about the existence of a causal relationship, at no stage do the researchers speculate about the absence of one. For example, they hypothesise that television viewing causes children to snack more often on high-calorie foods, even though their own data failed to support this hypothesis; no statistical relationship was found between the prevalence of snacking while watching television and obesity.

Elsewhere, other studies have proved equally unhelpful in building the ‘technology causes obesity’ case. Peter Rehor and Brad Cottam’s study of 262 Tasmanian school students found no relationship between physical activity and television viewing and computer usage (8). In a study of the behaviours of 2494 children from the USA and the UK, Marshal et al found that ‘Physical activity and sedentary behaviour [including computer/internet usage, video and television watching] are not two sides of the same coin.’ In other words, more of one does not mean less of the other. In their review of the literature on this issue Marshall et al write:

‘The mechanisms by which sedentary behaviours contribute to negative health outcomes, particularly overweight and obesity, are not well understood. One hypothesis is that involvement in sedentary behaviour limits the time available for participation in health-enhancing physical activity. Most data do not support this hypothesis and cross sectional and prospective data between TV viewing and adiposity show inconsistent and weak associations. Sedentary behaviour appears able to coexist with physical activity, with each having a unique set of determinants.’ (9)

With respect to the data from their own study, they conclude:

‘There were no instances of negative correlations between physical activity and sedentary behaviour which is consistent with several previous studies. Thus, it seems that physical activity does not interfere with behaviours such as reading or homework, or vice-versa. Overall these findings argue against the assumption that physical activity and sedentary behaviour share an inverse and causal relationship.’

Put simply, these researchers found that the amount of time children in this study spent being physically active and the amount of time they spent on sedentary activities had no bearing on each other.

In their review of the literature on the determinants of overweight and obesity, the prominent researchers James Hill and Edward Melanson take a slightly different position. On the one hand, they agree that it is unlikely that any increase in the amount of time children spend using televisions, videos or computers leads to a decrease in the time they spend in physically active leisure. On the other hand, they caution that increased technology usage may result in lower energy expenditure than would otherwise have been the case (10). This second part of their argument seems a little shaky. What they appear to be saying is that if a child chooses to play a videogame rather than some other form of sedentary activity, such as talk on the phone, read a book or listen to music, they will use a significantly lower number of calories. I am not aware of any study that supports such a proposition.

It is true that a number of other researchers, such as Seidell, continue to argue that television viewing may play a causative role in the development of obesity (11). But as Hernández et al point out, this proposition remains unproven, and it is important to remember that current conventional wisdom is that obesity levels have risen rapidly in the last 15 to 20 years while television has been with us for over 50 years (12). Moreover, while there is some inconclusive evidence linking television, as opposed to other forms of technology, with obesity, I am not aware of any researchers who are prepared to say that television alone is the problem. Instead there is a tendency to treat the evidence about television (such as it is) as proof that technology in general is to blame – another clue that we are dealing with people’s preconceived ideas rather than scientifically justified conclusions.

The ideology of ‘couch potato-ism’

An admittedly unscientific observation of my own is that children I know derive a great deal of enjoyment from television, videos and computers while still being very physically active. And although rising levels of obesity among certain sections of Western populations is of concern, my view is that the argument about technology and ‘couch potatoes’ is a red herring. Rather than helping us to understand childhood obesity, it has the potential to lead us hopelessly astray.

But why is ‘couch potato-ism’ ideological rather than just a run-of-the-mill misconception?

First, as a number of historians have shown (13), the idea that technology and modern Western life in general makes us sick, fat, lazy and (physically and mentally) soft has been around for centuries. In fact, the idea that modernity and its gadgets are a sign of progress has always gone hand in hand with the fear that they are physically and morally harmful.

Second, ‘couch potato-ism’ creates the impression that we are all equally at risk of falling victim. This is not true. In most Western countries, levels of obesity and low levels of physical activity are strongly associated with poverty and ethnic minority status. In other words, those with the most access to labour-saving technology are the most active and the least obese. For example, obesity and type II diabetes are serious problems for Australia’s indigenous population and the people of numerous Polynesian islands. I am at a loss to see how blaming televisions, VCRs and computers advances our understanding of the health problems faced by these communities.

Third, for physical educators like myself, blaming technology is the perfect excuse to ignore the criticisms of our practice that have been around for decades. At both of the physical education conferences I attended in 2003, the general consensus was that children today are lazy, and that computers have captured children’s attention, so that wholesome activities like sport don’t stand a chance. This is wishful thinking. Critical physical education scholars have been pointing out for some time that traditional approaches to physical education, based around teacher-centred pedagogies and physical fitness and team games are likely to become less relevant to children.

Finally, at the heart of ‘couch potato-ism’ is a moral judgement, that today’s children are more likely to choose to watch TV than be physically active because they are, by nature, weak willed and lazy. Yes, children today are surrounded by an array of new and exciting forms of technology, but they have not, as a group, become morally degenerate overnight.

Why children choose to be physically active or not is a matter that none of us fully understands. But we do know that people’s behaviours, beliefs and attitudes towards health, body weight, food and physical activity are shaped by the structural realities of their lives. In addition, their identity and their sense of belonging to particular social groupings appear to play an important role in determining whether physical activity and watching their body weight are high priorities.

As with some of the authors I criticised above, I am inclined to describe the issue of obesity as ‘complex’. However, in contrast, my argument is that we need to be cautious about where we lay blame rather than pointing the finger at easy scapegoats. Blaming technology will continue to be a great way to fill idle conversation but it is hard to see how it will make a real difference to anyone’s health.

Michael Gard is a senior lecturer in physical education at Charles Sturt University’s Bathurst campus, Australia. He is the co-author, with Jan Wright, of The Obesity Epidemic: Science and Ideology, to be published by Routledge in late 2004 (buy this book from Amazon(UK)).

(1) Campbell, D. (2000). Schools rear crop of couch potatoes. The Observer, 27th February, 6. Cowley, G. (2000). Generation XXL. Newsweek, 3rd July, 40-44. The Sun Herald (2002). Couch potato kids. 7th July, 20.

(2) Goodbody, J. (2000). £150m bid to get couch potatoes into school gym. The Times, 6th April, 10.

(3) Powell, S. (2000). One in four Australian children is overweight. Slower, stiffer, heavier – they are the cotton-wool generation. The Weekend Australian, ‘Review’ section, 27th-28th May, 6-8.

(4) Teutsch, D. (2002). High blood pressure and only aged seven. The Sun-Herald, 20th January, 10-11.

(5) Baur, L. A. (2001). Obesity: definitely a growing concern. Medical Journal of Australia, 174(11), 553-554.

(6) Strauss, R. S. and Pollack, H. A. (2001). Epidemic increase in childhood overweight, 1986-1998. JAMA, 286(22), 2845-2848.

(7) p. 845 Hernández, B,. Gortmaker, S. L., Colditz, G. A., Petersen, K. E., Laird, N. M. and Parra-Cabrera, S. (1999). Association of obesity with physical activity, television programs and other forms of video viewing among children in Mexico City. International Journal of Obesity, 23(8), 845-854.

(8) Rehor, P. and Cottam, B. (2000). Physical activity levels of northern Tasmanian high school students. The ACHPER Healthy Lifestyles Journal, 47(1), 14-17.

(9) Marshall, S. J., Biddle, S. J. H., Sallis, J. F., McKenzie, T. L. and Conway, T. L. (2002). Clustering of sedentary behaviours and physical activity among youth: a cross national study. Pediatric Exercise Science, 14(4), 401-417.

(10) Hill, J. O. and Melanson, E. L. (1999). Overview of the determinants of overweight and obesity: current evidence and research issues. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise 31(11), S515-S521.

(11) Seidell, J. C. (2000). The current obesity epidemic. In C. Bouchard (Ed), Physical Activity and Obesity. Champaign: Human Kinetics, pp. 21-30.

(12) Hernández, B,. Gortmaker, S. L., Colditz, G. A., Petersen, K. E., Laird, N. M. and Parra-Cabrera, S. (1999). Association of obesity with physical activity, television programs and other forms of video viewing among children in Mexico City. International Journal of Obesity, 23(8), 845-854.

(13) for example, Goldstein, 1992; Stearns, 1997 Goldstein, M. S. (1992). The Health Movement: Promoting Fitness in America. New York: Twayne Publishers.
Stearns, P. N. (1997). Fat History: Bodies and Beauty in the Modern West. New York: New York University Press.

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