Reality television shows featuring obese people may be deterring children from eating junk food, says marketing researcher Jacinta Hawkins.
Ms Hawkins has looked at the influence of programme content on children’s health knowledge, attitudes and behaviour. Her study found that images of fat people in shows such as The Biggest Loser may have instilled a "fear factor" in children.
"The grotesque appearance of overweight people on television is making children say ‘I don’t want to grow up like that’," Ms Hawkins says. "What they see on screen is a potentially powerful influence."
The research was part of her PhD thesis at Massey University’s College of Business on how schools promote health. As part of the study, she spoke to 92 children, aged from seven to 13, from six Auckland primary schools to find where and how they received information about nutrition and physical activity.
While some said they learnt from television news programmes, most mentioned reality shows such as The Biggest Loser, Fat Chance, Honey We’re Killing the Kids and Downsize Me.
Earlier studies have considered the impact on children of junk food advertising, Ms Hawkins says, but messages within programmes was a relatively unexplored area. "Children at all six schools identified programme content, as opposed to advertising, as a source of food and physical activity messages. They are learning patterns of eating and exercise from television programmes."
The children also recognise their parents have a role to play in shaping health behaviour. Speaking about Honey We’re Killing the Kids, which shows how people will look if they continue with a lifestyle of poor diet and exercise, the children said that they developed attitudes from their family’s habits. "People are giving their kids way too much junk food," one child observed.
Ms Hawkins says children strongly recalled what they had seen and talked about it being the parents’ responsibility to lead by example.
She presented a paper on her findings to the Australian and New Zealand Marketing Academy conference in December. She will graduate with her PhD next month.
(Source: Massey University: March 2010)