“Screening” Screen time: Exploring Media Influences on Children’s Lifestyle Behaviors

BY: Camden Matherne, PhD

DATE: March 10, 2016

As a kid, I remember having definite rules in our house about screen time. For example, no TV or video games before homework was done, and 90210 was definitely off-limits, much to my dismay! Now I recognize that those rules were in place to help – not frustrate – me. Anyone who has had regular interaction with children knows that their growing minds are susceptible to significant outside influences – media influences most certainly included. However, you may be surprised to learn that multiple scientific studies point to screen time as one of many factors promoting excessive weight gain in America’s children. And, given the concern with the high prevalence of childhood obesity in the US, the media has been particularly salient in the area of child weight regulation.

On a basic level, this makes sense – if children are spending more time in front of a screen (whether it be a television, computer, or other mobile device), they are spending less time running around outside and playing sports – in other words, not getting the level of physical activity that kids need for healthy development. Moreover, kids are inundated with targeted advertisements for foods and beverages that are calorically dense but nutritionally deficient (you’ve seen them too – McDonald’s happy meals with the newest Batman character, fruit chews shaped like Disney princesses), which encourages kids to eat more of these foods both in the short- and long-term. The food industry is a business, and kids are a target audience!

Kids today are exposed more than ever to media sources, and what they view influences their perceptions, and ultimately, their lifestyle. But what about the actual content of what our kids are viewing? In recent years, researchers have started to examine food-based messages in media content. Studies show books and television shows for preschool aged children exhibit popular “treat” foods (ice cream) more often than traditionally healthy foods, like vegetables. More importantly, treats are more commonly associated with positive emotions, like excitement, than are traditionally healthy foods (vegetables). At CEED, we know that the best approach is a balanced one – I personally love broccoli and ice cream!

Researchers at UNC, through a series of studies called “Pass the Popcorn,” have started studying food- and weight-based messages portrayed in children’s movies. Initial research of a sample of popular children’s movies (e.g., Harry Potter, Shrek) revealed that, like books and TV, movies frequently show high-in-calorie, low-in-nutrient type-foods. Even more importantly, the majority of movies sampled (70%) portrayed at least one stigmatizing message about weight. Examples provided include characters’ use of words like “fat” and “diet,” just to name a few. Our belief is that kids notice these messages and take them to heart – further confusing the development of a healthy relationship with food and one’s body. To study this further, members of our CEED team have joined with multiple UNC disciplines, including Pediatrics, Anthropology, Psychology, and Art History among others, to more broadly examine how eating and weight-based messages in movies may relate to children’s body-related beliefs and lifestyle behaviors. Stay tuned for more updates as this study continues!


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Goldman, J. A., & Descartes, L. (2016). Food depictions in picture books for preschool children: Frequency, centrality, and affect. Appetite96, 203-208.

Radnitz, C., Byrne, S., Goldman, R., Sparks, M., Gantshar, M., & Tung, K. (2009). Food cues in children’s television programs. Appetite52(1), 230-233.

Throop, E. M., Skinner, A. C., Perrin, A. J., Steiner, M. J., Odulana, A., & Perrin, E. M. (2014). Pass the popcorn: “Obesogenic” behaviors and stigma in children’s movies. Obesity22(7), 1694-1700