Movies May Influence Children's Food Choices, Study Shows

Filed under: In The News, Research Reveals: Toddlers & Preschoolers, Research Reveals: Big Kids, Research Reveals: Tweens, Research Reveals: Teens

Could food featured on film can lead to poor nutritional choices among kids? Credit: Darrren Hester, Flickr

Space aliens love candy and fast food.

You can see them eating at a Burger King in "Men in Black 2," and of course, Steven Spielberg thoroughly documented how much E.T. loves Reece's Pieces.

But that doesn't necessarily mean those are good choices for kids. Researchers at Dartmouth Medical School say movies may have a profound influence on children's food choices.

Movie characters often eat foods high in energy and low in nutrition, Lisa Sutherland tells the Web site HealthCanal.com.

She's a research professor of pediatrics at Dartmouth and the lead author of the study that appears in the latest issue of the journal Pediatrics.

Researchers from the Hood Center for Children and Families at Dartmouth found that six companies (Burger King, McDonald's, PepsiCo, Coca-Cola, Dr. Pepper/Snapple and Nestle USA) account for 45 percent of the product placement in mainstream movies.

Product placement is the practice of companies paying to have their brands shown on screen.

And it is particularly common in movies geared for kids, Sutherland tells HealthCanal. Researchers found characters in comedies and movies rated PG and PG-13 drink an awful lot of pop. Sutherland suggests that's because those movies attract the target demographic of older children and teenagers.

How effective is this not-so-subtle advertising on young minds? Sutherland tells HealthCanal the overall psychological effects remain unknown, but it is clear certain companies are targeting young people with some very unhealthy food choices.

Sutherland tells HealthCanal that children's diets have gotten progressively worse in the past 20 years with fewer than a fifth of teenagers eating the servings of fruits and vegetables recommended by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

She sees a connection between increasingly bad food choices and the reported tripling of obesity in teenagers over the past 10 years.

Movies and pop culture have to shoulder some of that burden, she says.

Many companies have pledged not to directly market to children. That's a step in the right direction, Sutherland tells HealthCanal.

Sutherland adds researchers are also concerned about the number of movie characters shown smoking and drinking alcohol.

"This is an area of study which clearly requires more research," she tells the Web site. "At a time in their development where children and adolescents are very susceptible to outside influences, we have to carefully examine the influence of all the factors that are combining to create what may end up being lifelong habits around food and lifestyle choices.

"Certainly, food product placement in movies is one of many factors, but it is one that may be far more influential than previously realized and perhaps the least well understood," she adds.

Related: Fighting Childhood Obesity

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Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.