Updated 12 December 2013

Kids' movies send mixed messages

In kids' movies depictions of sugar-sweetened beverages, exaggerated portion sizes and unhealthy snacks are common – as well as criticism of overweight.

In a world where animals often take the place of humans, sugar-sweetened beverages, exaggerated portion sizes and unhealthy snacks are common. So is TV watching, computer use and video games.

But this world is not kind to those who are overweight. A panda that aspires to be a martial arts master is told he'll never make it because of his "fat butt", "flabby arms" and "ridiculous belly". A chipmunk is called "fatty ratty". A donkey is called a "bloated roadside piñata" and told "you really should think about going on a diet".

This is the world that's portrayed in the most popular children's movies (both live action and animated) released in the US from 2006 to 2010, according to a mixed-methods analysis performed by an ensemble cast of researchers from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The examples cited above come from "Kung Fu Panda", "Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakuel" and "Shrek the Third".

"These children's movies offer a discordant presentation about food, exercise and weight status, glamorising unhealthy eating and sedentary behaviour yet condemning obesity itself," said Eliana M. Perrin, MD, MPH, associate professor of paediatrics in the UNC School of Medicine and corresponding author of the study, published online by the journal, Obesity.

Stigmatised content

In the study, Perrin and her co-authors analysed the top-grossing G- and PG-rated movies from 2006-2010. Four movies per year were included, for a total of 20 movies.

Segments from each movie were assessed for the prevalence of key nutrition and physical behaviours corresponding to the American Academy of Paediatrics’ obesity prevention recommendations for families, prevalence of weight stigma, assessment of the segment as healthy, unhealthy or neutral and free-text interpretations.

With regard to eating behaviours, the researchers found that 26% of the movie segments with food depicted exaggerated portion size, 51% depicted unhealthy snacks and 19% depicted sugar-sweetened beverages.
With regard to depiction of behaviours, 40% of movies showed characters watching television, 35% showed characters using a computer and 20% showed characters playing video games.

Movie segments rated as "unhealthy" by the researchers outnumbered those rated as "healthy" by 2:1, and most of the movies (70%) included weight-related stigmatising content.

"These popular children's movies had significant 'obesogenic' content, and most contained weight-based stigma," the study concludes. "They present a mixed message to children: promoting unhealthy behaviours while stigmatising the behaviours’ possible effects.





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