As innocent as children’s movies may seem to be, new research investigated whether or not they promote positive attitudes toward healthful food and the issues surrounding obesity. However, the opposite seems to be the case.

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A new study assesses attitudes to food and obesity in children’s movies.

Childhood obesity is a growing problem. Recent studies have discovered that 32 percent of 2–19-year-olds are overweight, and 17 percent are obese.

Some estimate that by 2025, around 268 million children aged 5–17 will be overweight, globally. This is a huge public health concern.

There are many factors involved in the weight gain we see in children in the United States, and these include parenting style, peer influence, advertising, and the fact that we are more sedentary now than we have ever been.

Another factor that has consistently been linked with obesity is screen time. The length of time that a child spends looking at a screen is associated with a greater body mass index (BMI).

The link between screen time and BMI may be due to several factors: advertising; “mindless” eating while watching shows; and because it replaces physical activities. A new study — published in the journal Pediatrics — looks at another possible factor: the way that movies influence perceptions of body image and diet.

The study asks how frequently obesity-promoting content and weight-stigmatizing messages appeared in children’s movies.

It is not yet clear if or how these types of depictions affect children who view them. But earlier work has shown that exposure to sexual themes and depictions of alcohol consumption in the media impacts adolescent behavior, so it is fair to consider that some kind of influence is plausible.

In a previous study, the current research group found that:

[S]tigmatizing and obesity-related content was not only present but also prevalent in the majority of the top children’s movies from 2006 to 2010.”

Specifically, they found that children’s movies regularly presented sedentary activities and unhealthful foods as the norm, as well as stigmatized obesity.

With a steadily increasing public focus on obesity and a reported rise in discrimination, the new study aims to update the previous findings and see whether anything has changed — be it for better or worse.

The group identified the top-grossing G- and PG-rated movies from 2012 through to August 2015 and asked more than 100 children (aged 9–11) which movies they had watched.

The team analyzed 31 movies. Each film was broken down into 10-minute segments and marked by raters. They logged any incidence of “items, behaviors, or activities shown to be associated with adiposity and weight status in children, such as oversized portions, drinking sugar-sweetened beverages, and eating while watching screens.”

They also looked out for negative portrayals of physical activities and nutritious foods, as well as weight-based stigma.

The observers identified many examples of negative imagery. Some were relatively blatant — for instance, in the movie Inside Out, a father struggles to get a child to eat broccoli, threatening her with no dessert. The child knocks the bowl of broccoli to the floor in a rage, which is clearly a negative stigmatization of healthful eating.

In others, the negativity is a little more subtle. The authors explain a scene from The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water: “[V]iewers are shown a panoramic view of the inside of the burger restaurant […] two fish are portrayed anthropomorphically as conventionally attractive patrons staring lovingly into each other’s eyes while splitting a burger.”

“In the background, an unattractive fish with a large belly is sitting alone. As he goes to take a bite of his burger, the chair underneath him breaks, stigmatizing his weight even in the low-gravity environment of the underwater world.”

In all movies they assessed, there was at least one segment that promoted obesity or unhealthful food or beverage choices. And, in the majority of them, these themes recurred throughout. In fact, compared with their previous study looking at films released from 2006–2010, the prevalence appears to have increased.

Although healthful foods did appear in these movies, they were most often attached to negative or neutral emotions. In contrast, nutrient-poor foods were much more likely to be shown in a positive light — for instance, given as a reward or eaten as a celebration.

They also showed that overweight and obese characters were consistently depicted negatively and were often portrayed as having lower intelligence. For instance, according to the raters, Patrick from SpongeBob was “frequently depicted as being stupid and lazy.”

The new study does not attempt to measure how these depictions might be influencing children’s behavior; its aim was to bring to light the range of negative impressions children are shown in movies.

As mentioned earlier, whether they alter children’s behavior will need further investigation, but, seeing as depictions of alcohol and sex have been shown to influence behavior, it certainly warrants examination.

While we await the answer to that question, the authors offer some advice: “In the meantime, it is important for parents and pediatricians to be aware of the cultural milieu of children and to provide active and conscious messaging endorsing healthy behaviors consistent with the adoption of good habits that can last a lifetime.”