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.

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.

The food and drink appearances made up 4.8% of the total broadcast material, and averaged 13.2 seconds for each cue.

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.

young boy eating popcorn and watching TVShare on Pinterest
Prof. Clodagh O’Gorman says: “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.”

“Eating and drinking are common activities within children-specific programming, with unhealthy foods and beverages especially common and frequently associated with positive motivating factors, and seldom seen with negative outcomes.”

The research, the authors say, adds to a small number of studies that have examined the issue, which “have largely been based on prime-time viewing in the US, and not on children-specific programming.”

Results of the previous US research show that sugary and low-nutrient foods and beverages represent up to 60% of all cues in prime-time TV. Other US findings cited by the present paper include:

  • Over two-thirds of movies contained at least one food, beverage or food retail establishment
  • There were more brand placements in movies for younger children than for other age groups.

Another previous US study “showed that unhealthy food with high fat or sugar was significantly more prevalent in youth-oriented shows than in adult-oriented shows.”

The paper is full of stats – here is another indictment: “Disney channels show 16.6 food and beverage scenes per hour, contrasted with 6 to 9 on prime-time programming.”

The authors conclude that future children’s television programs should address the issue “by including frequent and positively associated connotations with healthy foods and behaviors.”

Hundreds of corporations, from Burger King to PepsiCo, have signed up to an industry code on TV advertising aimed at children. The initiative is designed to “shift the mix of foods advertised to children under 12 to encourage healthier dietary choices and healthy lifestyles” – but is not compulsory and governs only advertising, not programming content.

The US Federal Communications Commission issued a notice of inquiry, “Empowering parents and protecting children in an evolving media landscape” – but nor does this deal with programming content, focusing instead on control over advertisers.

The power of TV programs is well-established, however – including having the ability to influence children positively. For example, TV shows can improve behavior among children – the February 2013 study in Pediatrics found that children can imitate good as well as bad behavior seen on television. The intervention group in the trial showed less aggression and an overall increase in pro-social behavior.

It is not just the influence of what is being shown on TV that affects children – the physical act of watching TV can itself be unhealthy.

There was news in June 2013 of research that concluded bedroom TVs were associated with childhood obesity. “A bedroom TV may create additional disruptions to healthy habits, above and beyond regular TV viewing,” said one of the authors of the paper published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.