Obesity is among one of the many global epidemics. Its impact affects all age groups. The attention of international and national foci has been sparked by the reported rising of prevalence of child and adolescent obesity for preventative and management action. (Bromfield, 2009). Childhood obesity is a major public health problem. A main contributing factor to childhood obesity has been identified as food advertising during children’s television programs (Udell & Mehta, 2008). Media is present to inform the public and present them with arguments that support or oppose solutions to childhood obesity. Obesity affects approximately 20% of the youth in America and this number is always rising. The media can define public perceptions on issues by choosing what to present and how this information is presented. This technique is called framing and can define what problems are perceived to be important and what the causes and solutions might be. It is hypothesized that media has a negative influence on the obesity of children. Past research will further help investigate this problem.
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In an article by Harris, Bargh, and Brownell (2009), it is hypothesized that food advertising on television triggers children to automatically snack on whatever food is available. It is stated that advertisements for high calorie, low nutrient foods are common contributors to the obesity epidemic. “Obesity is the fastest growing cause of disease and death in America”. (Harris, Bargh, and Brownell). The trend is increasing among young people. Snacking at non-meal times occurred in 58% of food ads during children’s programming. Food advertising to children portrayed unhealthy eating behaviors with positive outcomes. An important source of priming influences is the media, including television programs and advertisements. Food and beverage advertisements convey extremely powerful food consumption cues, including “images of attractive models eating, snacking at non-meal times and positive emotions linked to food consumption” (Harris, Bargh, and Brownell). The messages presented in television food advertising have the potential to act as real world primes and lead to equivalent eating behaviors. The article predicted that food advertising that conveys snacking and fun will automatically prompt eating behavior among adults as well as children. Experiment 1 in this study proved that snacking while watching commercial TV with food advertisements for 30 min. per day would lead to a weight gain of almost 10 pounds per year. Children’s behavior was consistent with what they saw on television, thus an automatic connection between what they saw and how they reacted due to the effect of food advertisements. In Experiment 2, it was predicted that food advertising would also prime eating behavior among an adult sample, and whether effects of eating behavior are due to exposure to images. It was hypothesized that watching food advertising that promoted “snacking, fun, and excitement” will cause people to eat more of snack foods than advertising that has nutrition benefits. The experiment supported the direct influence of the snack advertising on consumption. The experiments presented in this article were highly consistent with the hypothesis. Food advertising that promoted snacking, fun, happiness, and excitement contributed to increased food intake. A limitation found in this study is that real world exposure to food advertising occurs in many situations, and it is not definite that other situational factors could not have moderated the advertising effects (Harris, Bargh, and Brownell). Reactivity was minimized and external and internal validity were enhanced when the experimenters mocked TV-viewing conditions in a natural setting. Another limitation is that the specific advertising features that affected eating behaviors can not exactly be pinpointed. More research is needed to make certain that priming snacking versus nutrition benefits and not other features of the advertisements caused the effects on consumption behaviors (Harris, Bargh, and Brownell).
In an article by Udell and Mehta (2008), it was hypothesized that the main causes of childhood obesity were advertisements of unhealthy foods, no physical activity, increased time in front of the television, and busy parents. Policy changes to food advertising, encouraging environments for physical activity, better environments for healthy eating and healthy eating strategies were presented as solutions (Udell & Mehta). This study found one hundred and sixty-six newspaper articles published that reported on restricting television food advertising to children as a solution to childhood obesity. Young children were found to be vulnerable to manipulation of these food advertisements. This study suggested that children need to be protected from high exposure to advertisements by encouraging them to eat foods with high energy and low nutrients (Udell & Mehta). The article found that childhood obesity was caused by advertising of junk foods and a lack of physical activity due to the amount of television watched. The media often links unhealthy foods with something catchy. For example, McDonalds shows viewers that if a happy meal is purchased, the child will receive a toy. This gives a misperception to children that they will be rewarded when consuming unhealthy foods. Most of the food advertising for children was for high fat content low-nutrient foods, and this was giving children the wrong idea of what is healthy. A positive correlation was found between a child’s weight and the amount of time children spent on focusing their attention on media. This study emphasized the role of the media in advertising to children as a factor in childhood obesity. The articles that were analyzed were from July 1st, 2002 to July 1st, 2005, which was a time period where obesity was becoming an outbreak. The articles were 150 words or less and the main themes throughout these articles were concerning restrictions on food advertising to reduce obesity among children. Most of the results were constant with the idea that there should be restrictions on advertising. However, many articles suggested that television advertising had no effect on children and that the inactive lifestyle of a child was the main reason for their weight. The findings of this article were limited because there were only 166 articles selected and there could have been more data to support the hypothesis. The time period was also a limitation in this study because it was only within a 3 year span of time. During those years, obesity had just come to the public’s attention so little was known of the actual cause.
A study by Bromfield (2009) summarizes the negative physical and nonphysical outcomes for obese children compared with their non-obese peers. Obesity has been identified as a major risk factor for the development of common chronic and disabling conditions. Obese children have an increased risk of psychosocial and mental problems that can continue into adulthood. (Bromfield) Low self-esteem was presented in this article as the most common consequence of obesity. Other studies linked obesity to disordered eating, unhealthy weight control behaviors, bulimia, body esteem, and distorted body image. Obesity can become a child protection concern. Over-feeding of children by adults can be observed as producing extensive harm. Studies found that obese children with low levels of self-esteem engaged more in high-risk behaviors like smoking or alcohol consumption. (Bromfield) Research suggested that children who were overweight would encounter bullying as a consequence of their weight. It was also said that levels of education seem to be inversely correlated with body weight. A study in China found lower IQ scores in cases where children were severely obese compared to average weight peers. A survey was conducted for overweight children who rated their school performance and educational future lower than their non-overweight peers. Obese children often blamed their weight as a reason for having few friends and being left out from social activities. Weight bias and stigma in this article refers to weight-related attitudes that are displayed as stereotypes, stigma, rejection, and prejudice towards children because they are overweight or fat. (Bromfield) Current detrimental beliefs in the Western World include fat, ugly, awkward, overeaters, lazy, stupid, and worthless. Treatment for childhood obesity has been considered, including diet changes, exercise, surgery, medication and psychotherapeutic interventions. Parental involvement has been believed to be a main factor for the most effective intervention. Limitations in this study could be location, as US studies dominated the UK studies. Also, even though research has shown that obese and overweight children are the targets of stigma, more evidence would be needed to understand its nature and impact and how outside factors such as age, race, weight status, and disability act as mediators or moderators (Bromfield).
Media influence on childhood obesity is talked about more in research led by Harris and Bargh (2009). Investigation shows that children’s food preferences are acquired through learning processes which have long-lasting effects on diet. It was hypothesized that a specific type of food gains higher taste rating if it was advertised rather than it not being advertised. It was also predicted that there is a correlation between the time spent watching television at a young age and an unhealthy diet later on in their life. This is partially due to television advertising of food products which may influence one’s perceived taste of the unhealthy food. It is debated in this article who is to blame for the overweight children: the food industry or the parents. Research has shown the crucial role of parents in early learning of food preferences, as they start to develop early in children. Peers, social institutions, the media, and culture are all considered to play a role in the spread of food preferences (Harris & Bargh). Children learn about their social world openly through observation of the media. Children learn while watching television that foods filled with calories and are high in fat and sugar taste great and are rewarding to eat. Food products make up the most highly advertised category on television that children watch most, 98% of the foods consisting of low nutritional value. The average child watches 15 television food ads per day, promoting unhealthy food products and thus promoting that eating fatty foods is fun, happy, and cool. (Harris & Bargh) Research also shows television viewing and unhealthy eating habits are linked. Effects of television food advertising include greater recollection, preferences and requests to parents for the advertised products. Planned solutions to protect children from the unhealthy influence of television and food advertising included public service media campaigns, parent-child communication, and reductions in exposure to unhealthy messages on television (Harris & Bargh). In this article, it was predicted that preceding television exposure would be related to greater perceived taste and enjoyment of unhealthy, highly advertised foods. Parental interventions were hypothesized to moderate the unhealthy influence of television exposure on diet, which depended on how parents conveyed the message to their children. To test these predictions researchers conducted a study on college students at a private university and a state college; 90 from the public university and 116 from the private university (a total of 206 students). These participants were asked to complete a 30-min online survey of childhood memories of their parent’s rules and television viewing. The results were constant with the predictions of the experimenter, as perceived taste was associated with consumption. Healthy food consumption was associated with higher taste ratings for healthy foods, and lower taste ratings for unhealthy foods. From the collected data, results indicate that as predicted, healthy food consumption was correlated with higher taste ratings for healthy foods and lower taste ratings for unhealthy foods (Harris & Bargh). These findings supported the hypothesis that healthy and unhealthy diets are directly related to the perceived taste of healthy and unhealthy foods. The hypothesis that the relationship between early television viewing and unhealthy eating with children and adolescents continues into early childhood proved to be true with the results. Evidence consistently supports that children who watch more television simply like the taste of unhealthy foods more, especially those which have been highly advertised. Limitations of the data include the discrepancy of self reports. Participants could exhibit self-deception or biases which could lead to results that do not accurately represent participant’s actual behaviors and beliefs (Harris & Bargh). A survey was conducted with college students, however a student population was examined that may not be truly representative of all young adults and college students. Results represent relationships between variables and cannot determine causation.
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In the final article, Moore and Rideout (2007) explain the importance of marketing communication tools and how it is being used by advertisers to target children. The article discussed how food marketing is impacting children and how it may be linked to obesity. It was explained that internet, specifically, is being used as a marketing communications tool to target children. The focus of this research was on the online marketing practices by advertisers and how their practices affect children. It was hypothesized that exposure to the media, especially online advertisements, influences dietary habits among children and alters their perception on foods (Moore & Rideout). The study was conducted on major food advertisers by analyzing their Web sites from the summer to the fall of 2005 and 96 brands of food were used as candidates. There were three parts to the study: the features of the site, the specifics of the brand and how it was presented on the site, and games online. Results indicated that 85% of the brands had content on their Web site that had content for children. It was estimated that there were around 49 million views by children aged 2-11 per year on Web sites. Of those sites viewed by children, an astounding 73% of them contained one food brand while 27% contained up to 41 brands. It was also observed that of the many food brands on the Web sites, most of them advertised unhealthy foods, like candy, salty snacks, and sugary drinks. The researchers established that the advertisements online influenced children’s perceptions on what to eat. Because children spend so much time online playing games or socializing, they are constantly being exposed to persuasive food advertisements and it’s leading to the assumption that children are becoming obese because of the lack of physical activities and that their perceptions of food were being altered.
Given the right programming, television can be a prevailing tool of entertainment and education for children. Studies have been presented in this paper that television and media has very negative influences. Television is a destructive force through images and advertisements which can influence viewers to make poor food choices or to overeat. Excessive television watching can result in inactivity which leads to weight gain and poor levels of fitness. Children are especially targets of food advertisements and have been proven to be more vulnerable than adults to their influence. Results indicate that media indeed does play a crucial role in the prevalence of obesity among children. (Bargh & Brownell, 2009; Bargh & Harris, 2009; Moore & Rideout, 2007; Udell & Mehta, 2007). Evidence shows that advertisements have a strong impact on the way children distinguish what is healthy and what is unhealthy. Also assumed in the previous studies is that advertising companies are capable of persuading children very easily to consume their products and that the amount of advertising should be limited to solve the problem of obesity in America. These articles have provided significant insight on how media influences children’s eating habits. Obesity has become a rapid growing epidemic in this country and it is vital to understand the degree of the dangers of this disease. To further investigate the relationship between the influence of media and childhood obesity, it would be helpful to directly study children’s diets and the amount of time engaged in television and internet. The first step to solving this epidemic is by attacking the problem that has likely caused it-the media.
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