When It Comes to Advertising, Teens Are Vulnerable Too

Childhood Obesity News has been considering the particular obesity-related challenges of adolescence and how those obstacles tie in with the seemingly insurmountable problem of inspiring motivation in someone who has none. Teens are, in many ways, at a disadvantage compared to adults. Depending on economic class and employment status, they may have little choice over what they eat. They may be overwhelmed by peer pressure or crushed by public disapprobation.

Apparently, neural biology is not exactly on their side, at least according to a headline that reads, “Obese teens’ brains unusually susceptible to food commercials, study finds.” The gist is that, relative to other demographic groups, overweight teens possess brains that are somehow disproportionately stimulated by the food commercials on television. The pertinent study originated at Dartmouth College and was published in the journal Cerebral Cortex.

The experimental subjects were told that their purpose was to judge TV shows, while the researchers actually tracked their reactions to fast-food commercials. When food commercials enter their eyes and ears, their brains are particularly vulnerable in the regions that control “pleasure, taste and — most surprisingly — the mouth.” The report says:

The results show that in all the adolescents, the brain regions involved in attention and focus (occipital lobe, precuneus, superior temporal gyri and right insula) and in processing rewards (nucleus accumbens and orbitofrontal cortex) were more strongly active while viewing food commercials than non-food commercials… The brain’s reward circuitry involves the release of dopamine and other neurotransmitter chemicals that give pleasure and may lead to addictive behavior.

For teens who are already overweight, the effect is stronger. In the orbitofrontal cortex and in brain regions associated with taste perception, reactions are more pronounced, which means that kids who already carry extra pounds are more affected by food commercials than their normal-weight peers. The report says:

The most surprising finding was that the food commercials also activated the overweight adolescents’ brain region that controls their mouths. This region is part of the larger sensory system that is important for observational learning.

But why should it be surprising that sights seen by the eyes cause activity in the brain? It is a well-known fact that pornography affects the brain, to the point where the brain thinks an actual partner is present, and tells the body to act accordingly. Some people are so sensitive, when they see a person vomit in a movie, their brain forms the mistaken impression that poison has entered their own system, and causes them to vomit too. Of course the eyes and the brain and the rest of the body are connected — in innumerable ways.

Perhaps the most troubling aspect of this research is the age group it concentrated on. Many activists have been involved in removing certain kinds of advertising from TV shows that are primarily directed at small children, and expunging cartoon characters from cereal packaging, and so forth. There has been an assumption that small children, who are particularly vulnerable, innocent, and inexperienced in the ways of the world, need to be protected.

But teenagers? The big bad news from this research is that adolescents are vulnerable in ways we previously thought were problematic only for the very young.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Obese teens’ brains unusually susceptible to food commercials, study finds,” ScienceDaily.com, 05/21/15
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