The Screen — Bad News and Good

Dr. Eliana M. Perrin and a team of researchers from the University of North Carolina’s School of Medicine studied 20 top-grossing children’s movies, both animated and live-action, that came out between 2006 and 2010. At the end, they had labeled twice as many segments “unhealthy.”

In the film Kung Fu Panda, for instance, a panda hears that he can never achieve the dream of mastering the martial arts because he has a fat butt and a ridiculous belly. In Shrek the Third, a donkey is insulted with the epithet “bloated roadside piñata,” and “fatty ratty” is the unkind name applied to a character in Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakuel.

The report says:

Segments from each movie were assessed for the prevalence of key nutrition and physical behaviors corresponding to the American Academy of Pediatrics’ obesity prevention recommendations for families, prevalence of weight stigma, assessment of the segment as healthy, unhealthy or neutral, and free-text interpretations.

Most of the children’s films were found to include content that is not only stigmatizing but obesogenic as well. The latter includes such examples as characters eating unhealthful snacks, and meals with disproportionately large portion sizes, and drinking sugar-sweetened beverages.

There is also an inordinate amount of TV viewing and video game playing. The study concludes that the films “present a mixed message to children: promoting unhealthy behaviors while stigmatizing the behaviors’ possible effects.” As Dr. Perrin put it, they capitalize on “glamorizing unhealthy eating and sedentary behavior yet condemning obesity itself.”

Another facet

It is almost universally accepted that screen time is an obesity villain. Peer pressure is also considered to be a nearly unalloyed negative influence, but that isn’t necessarily true either.

Recent news from the Pennington Biomedical Research Centre indicates that not all screen viewing experience is created equal. Assistant Professor Amanda Staiano led a study of preschoolers (ages 3-5). The group who were shown a 7 1/2-minute video of children eating bell peppers, ate more of the vegetable than the group who were not shown the film.

The interesting part is the time lapse. The statistically significant difference showed up a week later, when the children who had been exposed to the sight of bell pepper consumption ate about 16 grams of the vegetable, as compared to the other group who only ate about 6 grams.

It may be important to note that the viewing group only viewed the video once, which shows that an impression can be made on a child’s mind with ease. Another principle applies here too. Not all change is immediate. When an idea enters a child’s mind, a delayed reaction is more reasonable to expect than an instant change.

Sometimes the brain takes a while to process new information, which needs to “soak in.” Sometime the new information lies dormant until another puzzle piece is added to it. It is a shame that so many academic studies span such short time periods, because long-term effects are more meaningful than short-term behavioral fluctuations. Parents and health care practitioners are sometimes too easily and prematurely discouraged, which is both understandable and regrettable.

The Reuters reporter consulted a scientist not involved with the research, the executive director of Nebraska’s Gretchen Swanson Center for Nutrition, to address the question of peer influence. Amy Yaroch, Ph.D., said:

We know from behavioral theory that role modeling is an effective strategy to get people (including young kids) to adopt healthy behaviors. Parents typically serve as role models, but peers can be a very strong influence as well, especially if they are viewed as “cool” by their peers.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Movies for kids send mixed messages about eating habits and obesity,”, 12/10/13
Source: “Videos of kids eating veggies may entice preschoolers to eat more themselves,”, 04/06/16
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