Junk food, kids, TV

July 4, 2014 at 4:09 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment


I’m prompted to write by a piece I’ve seen today on the BBC news website. It’s about a study in the journal Archives of Disease in Childhood (available in full here) which has found that children’s TV programmes – not the advertising, the programmes themselves – are as stuffed full of junk food as many of the kids who watch them.

As one of the researchers, Professor Clodagh O’Gorman, put it:Grasa-abdominal-cintura

“Programmes have teenagers after school going to a coffee shop or fast-food outlet, having lots of sugary or high-fat foods and they’re all thin and happy, and that’s not realistic.”

Now, I don’t think the good professor is suggesting that every shot of a skinny teenager shovelling down a hamburger should be balanced by an image of some poor soul with obesity, diabetes, heart disease, dementia or cancer – but she has a point. (For more information, try these pieces from Scientific American.) Junk food is so named for a reason. It’s bad for you.

Especially in the quantities shown on television. The researchers basically watched kids’ TV for 5 days on the BBC and the Irish broadcaster RTE. They found one food cue on average every 4.2 minutes. Nearly half (47.5%) of all mentions of food were for unhealthy stuff, like sweets, and a quarter of drinks-mentions were for sugar-sweetened beverages.

Clever, clever food industry.

What particularly struck me was the comment by that most faceless of entities, a BBC spokesperson:

“We broadcast lots of programmes to promote healthy eating to children and to help them understand where food comes from, with series like I Can Cook, Incredible Edibles and Blue Peter.”

Now, this is either disingenuous or it shows a startling lack of understanding of basic psychology. Since the BBC knows enough psychology to put its comment at the end (thereby increasing its impact) … well, anyway, let’s give this respected media organisation the benefit of the doubt, and explain.

Cover of BrainwashingIn my book Brainwashing, I talk about two kinds of ‘thought control’. Brainwashing by force is, if you like, the classic form: psychological torture, breaking someone’s resistance. Then there’s brainwashing by stealth, in which the persuader tries to slip ideas into someone’s mind without them noticing.

Take advertising, for instance. An ad for a car gives you an explicit message about how brilliant the car is; but you’re also getting unspoken messages about the kinds of people who own cars like this. You don’t see many car ads where the vehicle’s driven by elderly, ugly, sick or obviously poor people. There might be a buggy in the back, but a wheelchair?

Consumers may well not buy that specific car. But they’ll absorb the implicit messages about what society thinks is good and desirable, and all the better for not having the messages spelled out.

This study of child-specific TV programming found that food cues were much more likely to be linked to social rewards and good outcomes than to punishments and negative consequences. Unhealthy cues were presented for a shorter time, on average, than healthy ones. And overweight characters were much rarer than in real life. All of which sends the message – without saying so – that eating junk food is fine. More than fine: socially desirable and rewarding.

And so it may be, except that these childhood pleasures come with a hefty adult price tag (just ask the NHS).

If the BBC thinks that explicit messages about food health, presented in special programmes, are an effective way of balancing the stealthy persuasion uncovered by this research study, I’m afraid the BBC is wrong.



1 Comment »

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  1. Another great post. On brainwashing, I’m equally concerned about the internet and gaming. Are these mostly violent games (the greater the violence the bigger the profit it seems) skewing our young folks moral compasses? Are they inuring them to ever increasing acceptance of violence as the ‘new norm’? How far does it have to go before the barrier between reality & game fantasy begins to break down?

    Does your book look at this issue and/or the political scene? I suspect that our current political leaders in Australia are dabbling in the brainwashing by stealth category of control over the voters. This is deeply concerning for society as a whole and we need to be on guard and mindful to resist. We need to constantly re-ask “What sort of society do actually I want to live in?”

    I don’t expect that the previous paragraph matters in that I’ll be purchasing your book in any case but I thought others may be interested these issues and have opinions on them they might like to share.


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