The Brain Supremacy

From the frontiers of neuroscience

Junk Food, Kids, TV

The unnoticed pressures to eat unhealthy food

I’m prompted to write by a piece I saw recently on the BBC news website. It’s about a study in the journal Archives of Disease in Childhood (available in full here) which has found that children’s TV programmes – not the advertising, the programmes themselves – are as stuffed full of junk food as many of the kids who watch them.

As one of the researchers, Professor Clodagh O’Gorman, put it:

“Programmes have teenagers after school going to a coffee shop or fast-food outlet, having lots of sugary or high-fat foods and they’re all thin and happy, and that’s not realistic.”

Now, I don’t think the good professor is suggesting that every shot of a skinny teenager shovelling down a hamburger should be balanced by an image of some poor soul with obesity, diabetes, heart disease, dementia or cancer – but she has a point. (For more information, try these pieces from Scientific American.) Junk food is so named for a reason. It’s bad for you.

Especially in the quantities shown on television. The researchers basically watched kids’ TV for five days on the BBC and the Irish broadcaster RTE. They found one food cue on average every 4.2 minutes. Nearly half (47.5 percent) of all mentions of food were for unhealthy stuff, like sweets, and a quarter of drinks-mentions were for sugar-sweetened beverages.

Clever, clever food industry.

What particularly struck me was the comment by that most faceless of entities, a BBC spokesperson:

“We broadcast lots of programmes to promote healthy eating to children and to help them understand where food comes from, with series like 'I Can Cook,' 'Incredible Edibles,' and 'Blue Peter.'”

Now, this is either disingenuous or it shows a startling lack of understanding of basic psychology. Since the BBC knows enough psychology to put its comment at the end (thereby increasing its impact) … well, anyway, let’s give this respected media organisation the benefit of the doubt, and explain.

Brainwashing, cover image
Brainwashing
Oxford University Press, 2004
In my book Brainwashing, I talk about two kinds of "thought control." Brainwashing by force is, if you like, the classic form: psychological torture, breaking someone’s resistance. Then there’s brainwashing by stealth, in which the persuader tries to slip ideas into someone’s mind without them noticing.

Take advertising, for instance. An ad for a car gives you an explicit message about how brilliant the car is; but you’re also getting unspoken messages about the kinds of people who own cars like this. You don’t see many car ads where the vehicle’s driven by elderly, ugly, sick or obviously poor people. There might be a buggy in the back, but a wheelchair?

Consumers may well not buy that specific car. But they’ll absorb the implicit messages about what society thinks is good and desirable, and all the better for not having the messages spelled out.

This study of child-specific TV programming found that food cues were much more likely to be linked to social rewards and good outcomes than to punishments and negative consequences. Unhealthy cues were presented for a shorter time, on average, than healthy ones. And overweight characters were much rarer than in real life. All of which sends the message – without saying so – that eating junk food is fine. More than fine: socially desirable and rewarding.

And so it may be, except that these childhood pleasures come with a hefty adult price tag (just ask the NHS).

If the BBC thinks that explicit messages about food health, presented in special programmes, are an effective way of balancing the stealthy persuasion uncovered by this research study, I’m afraid the BBC is wrong.

(Conflict of interest declaration: I once published in the Archives of Disease in Childhood ... and have never been able to get off their mailing list since.)

Copyright @neurotaylor 2014

Kathleen Taylor is a freelance science writer and researcher at Oxford University.

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