We all know that kids love cartoon characters like Dora, Shrek and Scooby Doo. But they can have more influence than many people realize. They can even make children think that food tastes better!
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The Power of Cartoon Characters
Researchers from the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University wanted to see how popular cartoon characters on food packaging affected children's taste and snack choices. They gave 40 children ages 4 to 6 two bags of identical snacks — either graham crackers, gummy fruit snacks or carrots. One of the bags, however, had a sticker with Dora, Shrek or Scooby Doo on it. They asked the kids which foods tasted better, and which they would like to have as a snack. Most of the kids thought the one with the sticker on it tasted better — and that's the one they wanted for a snack. The results of the study are published in the July 2010 issue of the journal Pediatrics.
This might be good news if healthy foods had Dora or other popular characters on the packages. In fact, Sesame Street and Nickleodeon have partnered with some companies to put licensed images such as Elmo and SpongeBob on fruits and vegetables. But sadly, as the authors of the study point out, most of the marketing using licensed characters still occurs with junk food. And it's no small market: Every year food and beverage companies spend $1.6 billion on advertising aimed directly at children.
With childhood obesity increasing at an epidemic pace, it's important for parents to understand what influences their child's food choices. These character-branded foods are such easy pleasers that it's understandable why parents would buy them. But buying them is buying into the idea that they are good foods to eat. Unfortunately, that's not always, or even usually, the case.
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The Bigger Picture
It's important for parents to be more aware of the influence the media — television, movies, the Internet and video games — have on their children. Companies are not just selling junk food (and therefore obesity). They are also selling:
- Violence. Even video games for young children that look innocent may involve a lot of hitting, hurting or even killing.
- Sexualized images of women. Clothing ads, dolls like Barbie or Bratz, or the sexy women in videos and video games portray women in a way that can distort a young girl's view of her body and her relationships.
It may seem like a leap from Shrek on a frozen dinner to violence and sex, but it's all part of the same thing: how the media shape the actions and perceptions of a child.
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What Parents Can Do
Many of these sources of entertainment are fun. (There are some SpongeBob episodes that my whole family loves.) Some of them are educational, and many of the products with characters on them are perfectly harmless. So how do parents navigate these tricky waters?
Here are some suggestions:
- Take an inventory of the products (toys, foods, games, clothes, etc) with licensed characters that you own. It's good to know your starting point. You may be buying more than you realize.
- Think about the messages you send to your child when you buy things with licensed characters on them. If you buy something specifically because the character is on it, the message is that the product is better because of the character. This might be okay for a hat or beach towel, but not good when the product is junk food.
- When buying toys, look for more generic toys. They allow for more imaginative play, with a wider range of scripts and plots.
- Offer your child healthy meals and snacks, such as fruits and vegetables, each day. Teach your child to think about food in terms of how it helps him get and stay healthy, and how it tastes. Do everything you can to make eating healthy foods fun.
- Limit screen time (including computers and handheld games) to two hours or less a day. Regardless of the device, screen time should have to compete with — and lose to — exercise, reading and imaginative play for a child's attention.
- Hang out with your child while he is watching TV, playing video games or is on the computer. Make sure you know what he is watching and doing. Talk about it.
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The Bottom Line
As your child grows, help her learn to be a savvy media consumer. Discuss the messages various media send — and whether they are good messages or not. Help your child see how advertising targets her. That's what we really need to teach our children — and ourselves: to be critical and thoughtful about media messages. If we can do that, we can more safely enjoy all that media has to offer.
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Claire McCarthy, M.D., is an assistant professor in pediatrics at Harvard Medical School, an attending physician at Children's Hospital of Boston, and medical director of the Martha Eliot Health Center, a neighborhood health service of Children's Hospital. She is a senior medical editor for Harvard Health Publications.