Television characters are eating too much junk food and setting a bad example for children, a study has found.
Unhealthy food was featured in almost half (47.5%) of the instances where food was consumed on children’s programmes shown on RTÉ and BBC.
Sugary drinks accounted for 25% of the beverages shown.
In 95% of the portrayals, it was the ‘goodies’ who were consuming junk food and over 90% of the characters were not overweight.
Regulations in Ireland and Britain curb advertising, not programme content.
The study, published online in the Archives of Diseases in Childhood, analysed 1,155 instances in 2010 where food and drink were portrayed over more than 80 hours of children-specific broadcasting.
Just under 40% of the content recorded came from the US.
Sweet snacks (13.3%) were the most common food, followed by sweets (11.4%). Tea or coffee was the most frequent drink (13.5%), followed by sugar- sweetened ones (13%).
In one in four cases, the motivation factors for eating were celebratory, social, hunger or thirst. Health was the motivating factor in just 2% of instances.
Lead author, Limerick- based paediatric endocrinologist, Professor Clodagh O’Gorman, said they were surprised at how frequently characters were shown eating unhealthy food.
“Of course there were exceptions — one particular cartoon showed the goodie eating an apple and drinking a glass of water before fighting off the ‘baddie’,” said Prof O’Gorman.
Researchers found that eating unhealthy food was presented in a positive light in one in three instances (32.6%). It was portrayed negatively on almost one in five occasions (19.8%) and neutrally in around half of (47.5%).
Prof O’Gorman said the programmes did not specify the brands being consumed.
The study points out that while there is a clear link between exposure to advertising of unhealthy foods and their consumption in young children, the impact of unhealthy food or drink content in TV programmes aimed at children is unclear.
“There are some programme makers trying to address the issue but most of the programmes watched by children are showing food that is bad for them,” said Prof O’Gorman.
She believed broadcasters should be making an effort to purchase shows that make an effort at showing healthy food to children. “If they tried to do that then the programme-makers would do the same — start to have a more realistic attitude towards food,” she said.
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