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Friday 26th April 2019

Cartoon characters promote unhealthy food

22nd August 2011

US researchers have blamed the use of cartoon characters for the high popularity of unhealthy foods and snacks among children.


Parents trying to do their grocery shopping are frequently beset by repeated requests and wails of disappointment from their children if they try to impose healthier food choices on them.

Now, a US study has found that this vocal insistence is probably the fault of cute cartoon characters used to market the foods to kids.

Study co-author Dina Borzekowski, an associate professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore, said researchers looked at how foods of questionable nutritional value arrived in American homes.

The answer, the researchers found, was the 'nag factor'.

Nagging in the supermarket explained how 3- to 5-year-olds managed to get their parents to get them foods they might not otherwise buy.

Writing in the Journal of Children and Media, the researchers said the results should spark concern, because more and more children and young people are now obese.

They blame the kinds of low nutrition, yet high-calorie foods, beloved of young children.

The researchers interviewed 64 mothers of children aged 3-5 years old.

More than half the women who took part were educated to graduate degree level, and they had an average age of 38.

Most of the mothers interviewed had an annual household income of more than US$60,000, 68% worked outside the home, and 88% were married.

These relatively affluent homes possessed an average of two televisions, although only three of the children studied had television in their own bedrooms.

Average total daily screen time was reported at 39 minutes, with most of that taken up with television.

Researchers found that while the amount of television a child watched did not necessarily lead to increased nagging for unhealthy foods, a familiarity with certain commercial TV characters did.

Other factors cited as influencing nagging were the way a product was packaging and exposure to advertisements.

Mothers reported tantrums from very young children who were already aware of the cartoon characters associated with a certain product, and appeared to be motivated by advertisements.

More than 70% of mothers said they regularly gave in to nagging, although others tried shouting, ignoring the request, calm consistency, avoidance, limiting exposure to commercials and negotiation.

Some allowed alternative items, while others tried explaining the situation.

Borzekowski recommended to mothers who could not say no that they should leave their children at home when they go shopping, to avoid battles in the cereal aisle.

Rules and negotiations also seemed to work, especially limiting the child to a single favoured item per shopping visit.

But researchers said that trying to limit exposure to advertisements was difficult when children tended to watch whatever their peers watched.

Rahil Briggs, director of the Healthy Steps Program at Montefiore Medical Centre in New York City, said consistency was the most important principle to remember.

She said that giving in after initially saying no actually worsened the nagging problem, because it taught the child that persistence could pay off.

Children would eventually stop pursuing behaviour that did not get the desired results, Briggs said.

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