By Heather Gridley FAPS and Dr Susie Burke MAPS, Psychology in the Public Interest, National Office 

According to A Picture of Australia's Children, the third national statistical report on the health, development and wellbeing of Australia's children (AIHW, 2005), children are increasingly rated as overweight and obese, with serious public health implications. With childhood obesity estimated to be rising at an annual rate of one per cent (Australian and New Zealand Obesity Society, 2008), half of all young Australians could be overweight by 2025.

In this context, the Australian Greens last year introduced a Bill in the Senate, Protecting children from junk food advertising (Broadcasting Amendment) Bill 2008. The Bill proposed that children be protected from inappropriate food and drink advertising through the prohibition of advertisements for foods high in sugar, fat and salt during C (children) and P (pre-school) television programs and at schools. The APS made a submission to the Senate inquiry regarding the Bill and fully supported the spirit of the Bill. The submission further recommended that children should be actively taught about healthy eating in ways that are separated from production, sale or distribution of any product involving financial reward for the company. Disappointingly, the Bill was not passed in the Senate - victim, perhaps, to the mighty weight of vested interests.

The Bill may not have succeeded, but psychologists still have many opportunities to contribute to the debate, protest about the impact of junk food advertising on children, and defend children's right to develop food associations (and hence health behaviours) that aren't just the product of marketing industries.

The psychology of junk food advertising and healthy eating

Healthy eating habits in children are established in early childhood. Advertising plays an active part in shaping children's perceptions of the world, and their health and eating behaviours. There are a number of theories about how this occurs, e.g., by cultivating acceptance of beliefs, values and attitudes portrayed at a broad cultural level; by social learning, whereby children observe which attitudes and behaviours are accepted and rewarded; and by impacting on the formation, development and maintenance of cognitive scripts for how to behave in a variety of circumstances. Advertising manipulates children who are too young to discern its intent. Young children are particularly vulnerable to deceit and exploitation because they lack the cognitive skills to defend themselves against persuasive advertisements (APS, 2000).

Advertising can influence children in many ways: increasing product awareness, attitudes towards a product, inclinations or buying behaviour, ideas about eating norms, and tendency to request purchases from parents. It can also arouse cues, cravings, thought preoccupations, and snacking behaviour, and increase the perceived value of certain products as rewards. Healthy eating habits can be disrupted by advertising that encourages children to desire particular types of products and brands and creates norms for foods and drinks high in sugar, fat and salt.

Unfortunately, food and drink advertising is dominated by advertisements for foods high in sugar, fat and salt. Not all such foods are easily recognisable as ‘junk food' (e.g., many breakfast cereals are extremely high in sugar). Children exposed to such foods are more likely to develop a preference for those tastes. Children exposed to junk food and drink advertisements can learn to associate the products with having fun (Hawkes 2005).

In addition to genetics, the causes of obesity include cultural, environmental, economic, familial and individual behavioural factors that result in an imbalance between energy intake and expenditure, including increases in sedentary lifestyles and over-consumption of highly refined, calorie dense foods. Healthy eating is critically important in helping children maintain an appropriate weight, improve their overall wellbeing, and reduce their risk of serious ill-health later in life. Healthy eating is also strongly associated with other health behaviours, and with more exercise and recreational sports, higher levels of mental health, less TV viewing, lower internet and computer games use, more constructive leisure time, and less substance abuse (Jackson, Brown, & Pardun, 2008; Sanigorski et al., 2008).

Although many efforts to tackle obesity as a public health issue have yet to be adequately researched, lessons from other public health campaigns suggest single measures have minimal impact in the absence of related comprehensive strategies. Multi-faceted prevention approaches acknowledge the complexity of human behaviour, addressing both risk and protective factors. The strategies most likely to reduce levels of food-related harm - such as increased regulation - are often more politically challenging, complex and expensive. However, real results can only come from integrated approaches that address such challenges.

References

Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. (2005). A picture of Australia's children. Canberra: Australian Government.

Australian Psychological Society. (2000). Media representations and responsibilities: Psychological perspectives. www.psychology.org.au/publications/statements/media/.

Australian and New Zealand Obesity Society. (2008). Obesity Society Fact Sheet: Obesity in Australian Children, Definitions and Prevalence (updated). Accessed 22 October 2008. www.asso.org.au/freestyler/gui/files//factsheet_children_prevalence.pdf.

Hawkes, C. (2005). Self regulation of food advertising: what it can, could and cannot do to discourage unhealthy eating habits among children. Nutrition Bulletin, 30, 374-382.

Jackson, C., Brown, J.D., & Pardun, C.J. (2008). A TV in the bedroom: Implications for viewing habits and risk behaviors during early adolescence. Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media, 52, 349-367.

Sanigorski, A.M., Bell, A.C., Kremer, P.J., Cuttler, R., & Swinburn, B.A. (2008). Reducing unhealthy weight gain in children through community capacity-building: Results of a quasi-experimental intervention program, Be Active Eat Well. International Journal of Obesity, 32, 1060-1067.