Our family's last major fan of Sponge Bob Square Pants just graduated from college, so it has been a while since I've been in the watery world of the beloved Nickelodeon TV character.
Imagine my delight, then, to have an actual professional excuse to hang out on the channel's website, Nick.com.
Sponge Bob was still there, square as ever, along with newer characters that looked fun (teen babysitters!), and others that looked ... interesting (teens rapping about "Fart in a Jar'').
Then there were the ads.
• Ads for a Capri Sun beverage promoted by weight-lifting boys that had me thinking the stuff was healthy until I discovered the first ingredient after water is still high-fructose corn syrup.
• Ads for McDonald's that exhorted kids to get their Happy Meals with milk and apple slices — but showed crispy golden fries and chicken nuggets, too.
• Ads that starred a cute little leprechaun and happy little kids drawing and coloring. Whew, I thought. Calorie-free art supplies! Nope, it was a come-on from Beef O'Brady's to get kids to bring their drawings in to the restaurant to receive free desserts.
Mission accomplished, I called Jennifer Harris, a social psychologist who is director of marketing initiatives at Yale's Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity. She is an author of a new study that found more than 3 billion ads for food and beverages were seen on the most popular children's websites from July 2009 to June 2010. Most promoted items high in fat, sugar and/or sodium.
Researchers have warned for years of how TV ad pitches contribute to childhood obesity. But this is the first study to analyze how the other kind of screen time might contribute.
Actually, Harris told me, web ads might be even more insidious. A 4-year-old can tell the difference between a TV ad and a program. But on the Web, even 12-year-olds have trouble distinguishing ads from regular content, studies have shown.
"The kids' banner ads are really interactive, with a lot of Flash animation, games within the ads themselves, and all of those ads connect children to the food company websites,'' Harris explained.
What about the apparent interest in health that I saw on the McDonald's and Capri Sun ads? Harris was not impressed, noting that such depictions may confer a "health halo'' on products that don't deserve it.
She admitted that no one knows for sure exactly how much advertising contributes to our nation's undeniable problem with childhood obesity. Fully 17 percent of children are obese, and more are overweight, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
"One thing we do know is that children consume too many calories,'' Harris said. "They eat too much sugar, processed foods, fast foods, pizza'' — exactly the foods that get the most advertising.
"I think it's almost impossible to address childhood obesity until we stop constantly reminding kids about these foods, which frankly taste really good.''
Some of us might argue that healthy foods taste good too, but it's hard to tell a kid that when advertising makes the bad stuff look so cool. When was the last time you saw a neat toy packaged with carrot sticks?
The Yale study found much of the food and beverage advertising was concentrated on just four kids' websites: Nick, NeoPets, CartoonNetwork and Disney. Which could make it easier to follow one of Harris' suggestions for parents who want to limit their kids' exposure.
"Keep track of what they're doing on the internet,'' she said, noting that a lot of parents might not even be familiar with what's known as "advergames.''
"You may think your child is on NeoPets.com, and that it's just fun kids games, but you don't think about the links to advertising.''
Her first bit of advice, though, was all about the bigger screen: "Keep your kids away from commercial television as long as you possibly can.''
Her kids are well past Sponge Bob age, so as a mom she knows how hard that can be. But as a scientist, she knows it's worth the effort to shield them from unhealthy food ads.
"Research shows the longer you can keep kids away from it,'' she told me, "the longer you can counteract their effect.''