- Media exposure of children to alcohol, tobacco and the consumption of unhealthy foods is common.
- In particular, legal loopholes allow them to appear in reality TV shows.
- Researchers say these emissions can influence children to use these unhealthy substances.
- They suggest that laws be strengthened to protect kids.
- Parents can also play a role in encouraging healthy behaviors.
New research published in the Public Health Review indicates that when children are exposed to unhealthy behaviors like smoking, drinking, and eating unhealthy foods in the media, it can influence them to engage in those behaviors themselves.
The authors note that government agencies have attempted to limit this by limiting the appearance of alcohol and tobacco on television. However, they say depictions of it are still quite common.
In particular, they suggest that reality shows, with their glamorous, scripted portrayals of what is supposed to be “real life”, can cause young people to try to copy what they see.
Lead research Alex Barker, PhD, and his team looked at 20 English-language reality shows that aired between 2019 and 2020. Their aim was to try to judge how often children might have been exposed to images of tobacco, alcohol and unhealthy food. through these shows.
The team counted the number of one-minute intervals containing each of these elements.
Tobacco-related content was seen in two percent of the intervals in two percent of the episodes studied.
Alcohol appeared much more frequently, with 39% of intervals in 98% of episodes containing this content.
Finally, unhealthy foods high in fat and sugar were found in 13% of intervals in 88% of episodes.
Particular brands of products were often seen in the episodes studied, especially for alcohol and food. The brand of tobacco was, however, rare.
A total of 149 brands of alcohol were featured in 46% of episodes, with Peroni being the most common with 101 appearances.
Ninety-three unhealthy food brands were featured in 39% of episodes, with the most common, Coca Cola, appearing 87 times.
The television broadcast had significantly more content related to smoking and unhealthy foods than Netflix programming, the authors said, but there was no real difference in alcohol-related content.
The different countries studied all had similar amounts of tobacco-related content and the amount of branding shown was also similar.
However, the UK had significantly more ranges containing alcohol and unhealthy foods than Australia and the US.
Highlighting the influence of reality shows in particular, Barker noted that they contain high amounts of alcohol and unhealthy foods.
Barker said, “There is now strong evidence that exposure to advertising or other tobacco, alcohol and junk food content in the media increases later consumption among children and adolescents.”
Previous research shows that this type or content is very common on television, he added, with reality shows being very popular among young people.
“These programs are widely watched and viewed by young people and due to the nature of reality television, with its inspirational role models, they likely influence young people’s drinking and food choices,” Barker said.
Ryan Bogdan, PhD,associate professor of psychological and brain sciences at Washington University in St. Louis, says media cues could influence the use of these substances in a variety of ways.
“The dopaminergic-rich corticosteroid circuitry in our brain helps us learn which cues from our environment are reward-associated to drive motivated behavior. So whether substance and food cues have been positively paired in the past or present in rewarding contexts, it can induce cravings.
For example, he said, studies have shown that images of appetizing foods make this circuit more active and this is linked to food cravings.
“It’s also possible that broader social imitation is at play,” Bogdan said. “If individuals with some form of celebrity status are depicted engaging in behavior, it may lead to imitative behavior in viewers who wish to be like them.”
Barker believes that current rules and regulations to prevent this type of exposure are not enough.
“Rules should be tightened,” he said, “to prevent the presentation of genuine brands.”
He notes that regulations already exist to protect young people. For example, the Ofcom Broadcasting Code in the UK prohibits the depiction of tobacco and alcohol in children’s programs or programs broadcast before 9 p.m.
Similarly, paid placements of alcoholic products are not permitted. In addition, advertising of unhealthy foods before 9 p.m. will soon be restricted, he said.
However, the laws do not currently cover the content of television broadcasts, according to Barker.
He believes that this loophole should be closed.
Bogdan suggests that when it comes to what parents can do to help their children, encouraging and rewarding healthy habits can be beneficial in combating the negative influence of reality TV shows.
“There is evidence that consideration of future negative consequences of behaviors (e.g. smoking) reduces cravings – this could potentially emerge by recruiting more top-down regulation of reward-related neural circuitry,” explained Bogdan.
Bogdan said that, from a broader perspective, public health campaigns can be leveraged to promote healthy behaviors such as smoking avoidance.
Additionally, Bogdan said, “If you or your child have difficulty consuming palatable foods, alcohol, tobacco, or other substances, in addition to seeking professional help, minimize exposure to cues that can induce cravings can reduce cravings to promote reduction in use or complete cessation of use. »
Finally, he noted that it can be difficult to reduce the use of these harmful substances, especially during times of stress.
“Usage reduction issues are common and it’s important not to throw in the towel and try again,” he said.