Parents vs. Commercials: Who Influences Children's Food Choices More?

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As the rates of obesity and obesity-related illnesses for American children continue to rise, researchers analyze various influences on the food choices kids make. Children who watch television see commercials that promote unhealthy processed foods and fast foods. Companies know these commercials are effective at encouraging children to eat their products. New research in the Journal of Pediatrics evaluates how much counter-influence parents have on the choices their children make after watching food commercials.

Researchers from Texas A&M International University enrolled 75 preschool aged children between 3 and 5 years old. They showed a series of cartoons to the children. The cartoons were shown in a series, with commercials placed to follow each cartoon. Half of the children were exposed to commercials about French fries and the other half of the children were exposed to commercials promoting sliced apples served with dip.

Following the viewing of the cartoons interspersed with commercials, the children were given a choice to pick out a coupon for either the fries or the apple slices with dipping sauce. Half of the parents were instructed to not influence their children to choose a particular coupon, and the other half of the parents were instructed to encourage their children to select the coupon for the apple slices.

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Seven out of ten children who watched commercials for French fries chose the French fries coupon over the apple slices coupon when their parents remained neutral and did not encourage them to choose the fruit option. Of the children who watched the commercial for apple slices, 46% of them chose the coupon for French fries if their parents did not attempt to influence them, showing that exposure to a commercial for French fries does influence children to select French fries more often.

Of the children who watched the French fries commercial, when their parents encouraged them to select the coupon for the apple slices, 45% ultimately chose the coupon for the apples, and 55% still chose the coupon for the French fries despite their parents’ effort to influence them to choose a healthier choice. Of the children who watched the commercial for apples slices, only 33% chose the French fries when their parents influenced them to choose apples.

The media greatly influences the food choices children make. When children watch commercials for unhealthy foods, they desire these foods. When they watch commercials for healthier foods, they are more likely to choose healthier foods. Parents can influence their children’s choices, but it appears that the media holds a great deal of power.

Parents should consistently encourage their children to eat healthy foods, both by providing healthy foods and by being role-models for healthy eating. Families should limit the amount of television their children watch to reduce the long-term influence of commercials

.Journal of Pediatrics: Study Suggests that Children’s Food Choices are Affected by Direct Advertising and Parental Influence

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