Food and Behaviour Research

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4 July 2014 - MNT - TV gives children a 'bad example' on food

Markus MacGill

Unhealthy food choices that carry bad consequences in real life are shown in a positive light by television programs aimed at children, an analysis of broadcast output has found.


Find the underpinning research article here:  Scully et al 2014 - Food and beverage cues in UK and Irish children-television programming

The research, into TV shown to kids in England and Ireland, has been published in the BMJ journal Archives of Disease in Childhood.

Of all the programming watched by the children, just under 40% of it originated from the US. Almost all of the food and drink "cues" were presented by positive characters - the goodies:

  • In a positive light in 1 in 3 instances (32.6%)
  • Portrayed negatively on almost 1 in 5 occasions (19.8%)
  • Neutrally in about half of instances (47.5%).

Some 1,155 food and beverage cues were recorded in total in this largely positive framing, but the placements were usually bad examples for health, say the authors:

"Unhealthy foods, such as sweet snacks and candy, accounted for 47.5% of all food-specific placements, and sugar-sweetened beverages accounted for 25% of all beverage-specific placements."

Whenever food or drink formed part of the children's television content, usually it:

  • Was outside the home and not part of a meal
  • Involved "non-overweight human characters, most commonly a white adult male playing a major role within the program plot."

Contexts for food and beverage depictions were most often social or celebratory (25.2%). Hunger or thirst was almost as frequent (25.0%), and only 2% of "motivations" were health-related.

Professor Colum Dunne, co-author and director of research at the University of Limerick's Graduate Entry Medical School in Ireland, says: "Over 90% of characters were not overweight, despite consuming unhealthy products.

"This is not a helpful or accurate portrayal of current Irish or UK populations, where overweight and obesity are prevalent and increasingly problematic."

Lead author Prof. Clodagh O'Gorman adds: "While there is a clear link between exposure to advertising of unhealthy foods and their consumption in young children, the impact of unhealthy food/drink content in TV programs aimed at children, is not clear.