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Fight childhood obesity with media literacy

By Carrie Ann Olson

Food marketing to children is big business, and strongly influences children's food preferences and purchase requests, according to a 2006 Institute of Medicine Report, "Food Marketing to Children and Youth: Threat or Opportunity". As a result, this and other reports say, childhood obesity is rising.

The statistics are compelling:
  • In 2006, food and beverage companies spent more than $1.6 billion,
    or 63% of their marketing budgets, to promote food and beverages to children (Federal Trade Commission, 2008)

  • The average American child  has more than 7.5 hours of screen time per day:
    watching TV or movies, using cell phones or computers, and playing videos (Kaiser Foundation, 2010) and sees about 40,000 ads per year on TV, the majority of them for candy, cereal, soda or fast food (Kaiser Foundation, 2010)

  • The percentage of obese or overweight children nationally is at or above 30 percent in 30 states (Trust for America's Health and Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, 2009)

With social media, contact between food companies and youth is growing more intimate, according to a 2009 study in the Journal of Adolescent Health. (Subscriber access only, unfortunately.)

A teachable moment

Family- and youth-serving professionals can help their audiences to understand the influence of food marketing messages. We can also provide tools and strategies to reduce that influence. I believe is vital that we spend education time on social awareness, responsible decision-making and media literacy skills.

Here are some youth program resources that can help youth to dissect the marketing messages that bombard them:

Fighting Junk Food Marketing to Kids: a toolkit for advocates was developed by the Berkeley Media Studies Group to help community advocates understand how food marketing affects kids' health and what they can do about it at the local level. It is designed to be used in conjunction with the video "Fighting Junk Food Marketing to Kids," which illustrates community-based responses to marketing.

Don't Buy It: Get Media Smart is a media literacy website backed by public television that encourage young users to think critically about media and become smart consumers. Activities provide users with some of the skills and knowledge needed to question, analyze, interpret and evaluate media messages.

One of the core competencies of the 4-H Healthy Living Logic Model is social awareness. Youth need to understand the impacts of media and cultural messages and use media literacy skills to deconstruct harmful messages. It is our responsibility to enhance our youth's positive social and emotional development.

"Targeted Food Marketing to Youth", is an online training curriculum nearing pilot completion for professionals who work with parents of children birth to 7 and professionals who work with children ages 8-13. I am working with a team of youth and family educators here at the
University of Minnesota Extension to develop it. Course objectives are to:

  • Identify marketing techniques and strategies the food industry uses to market to children

  • Recognize trends in early childhood nutrition

  • Recognize developmental stages in children's comprehension 

  • Grow understanding of marketing and different media

  • Acquire strategies to help parents set limits for nutrition food and beverage choices in and out of the home and utilize tools to teach parents and youth how food marketing influences food choices.

It is based on the Media-Smart Youth: Eat, Think & Be Active curriculum and will contain tools and strategies for professionals teaching
parents and youth, and lesson outlines for a six-session series and a three- or six-hour day camp for youth aged 8-13.

Do you see the need for youth media literacy? How have you incorporated media literacy
education into your youth work practice, teaching or research?

-- Carrie Ann Olson, Extension educator & associate Extension professor

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  1. Carrie,
    From you post, it is apparent that there are many resources out there to help children, educators, and parents become literate about media messages, however, we continue to see growing numbers of children and adults that are overweight and obese. From your point of view, what are we missing?
    Thanks for your post,

  2. I really think we are missing that multi-focused approach that involves all aspects of the ecological system. Current media illiteracy attempts are often piece meal. The resources I mentioned really need to be used together. Is the child aware that the short interruption in their favorite television show is trying to get them to want something that may not be the most healthy for them? Does the parent have healthy options to offer their child when they beg for the not so healthy item. Does the parent have community supports that advocate for healthy options to be available within their community? And with the current fast pace environment of many families, not only do they need to be aware of the issues, and have options to support them, but they need to have the energy and desire to take the healthier option.
    I also want to recognize the Federal Trade Commission's Interagency Working Group on Food Marketed to Children that has some tentative proposed nutrition standards that I feel will offer some bigger picture supports to families by influencing what can be advertised and show up on the grocery store shelves.
    Thanks Sam for your question.

  3. Jennifer A. Skuza, PhDMarch 4, 2011 at 5:40 AM

    Hello Carrie –
    I appreciate the multi-faceted ecological approach you described in your response to Sam’s question. No one strategy can be effective on its own. Just as media alone isn’t the only reason there is a rise in childhood obesity. Although is it an important factor to address as you indicated in your blog article. So, I am interested in knowing - how do parents’/guardians’ eating habits and lifestyle fit into this equation?

  4. Hi Jennifer,
    Yes, I'm interested as well in understanding how parental habits and lifestyle influence youth. I recognize that we can support parents/guardians by providing take home pieces with our programming directed towards youth as well as through the more direct adult programming. That take home piece of information highlighting the programs objectives and activities might fit into more easily into the family's lifestyle and can serve as a starting point for the evening dinner table conversation. Our own University of Minnesota faculty have several studies that support the idea that family meal time are positively related to a more healthy diet. (Journal of American Dietetics Association, February 2003 and July 2010)
    Thank you for helping us think about how we can support parents/guardians in promoting healthier lifestyles for youth.

  5. Jennifer A. Skuza, PhDMarch 7, 2011 at 1:03 AM

    Hello Carrie -
    Great ideas. Homes can be such powerful learning environments.


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