Healthy Frames of Reference

Yesterday I watched the documentary “Killer at Large” and I was reminded of a startling statistic I had learned about in school. The documentary shared, “A preschoolers risk for obesity increases 6% for every hour of television watched per day.” As a communication studies major in both graduate and undergraduate school, I learned plenty about the harmful effects television can have on children and adults.

Ryan and I decided early on in our marriage to not have any television programming in our home. Once we had our daughter, we decided to not allow her to watch any form of mass media (television, DVDs, etc.) at least until she is two years old (which is what the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends). At that point, we will reevaluate our decision. Although we have to admit, at this point it is not looking like we will allow her to watch any television programming once she is two (we do not even watch it ourselves). The only thing that we may consider allowing is an occasional DVD. Our daughter is a voracious “reader” and we cherish the precious time we spend with her reading.

The media have powerful effects on all of us, even more so on young children who are incredibly impressionable. As “Killer at Large” pointed out, advertisers know if they can reach a child under the age of two with their marketing messages, they will most likely have a loyal consumer for life. As our daughter has gotten more mobile, my awareness for the things we expose our children to, particularly media-wise, in our home has grown. Even though we do not allow television, she is still exposed to marketing messages via our mail and even imagery on the covers of our books. Over the past month or so, I realized with some surprise even our daughter’s board books have things in them that promote unhealthy habits. I had not expected this.

Obviously major food companies are trying to sell kids their sugary, addicting food. Duh! What I did not expect, as a new parent, was to find children’s books filled with references and pictures of kids eating unhealthy foods. I guess I never really thought of it being an issue. I had always thought of sexual or scary imagery being the cause for concern in children’s media. Yet, just as I desire my children to make solid moral decisions, I also desire for them to make healthy eating decisions. Just as sexual and scary imagery and language can affect a child’s mind and choices so too can imagery and language featuring foods. I find this true in my own life. I can be doing just fine avoiding junk food, but then I go to the store and I see a billboard for a Coke and all the sudden I am craving a Coke. It is scary at times how easily we, as humans, are influenced.

There are no brand references in any of our board books, but if the lovable main characters are eating or drinking something- it is usually something unhealthy. Corduroy, the adorable bear, eats a snack of juice and cupcakes in “Corduroy’s Valentines Day“. A child munches on what he describes as his favorite meal in “Hooray for Wonderful Me!”  and we see a picture of take-out pizza. Spot, the dog, and his mother buy an armful of chocolate bars to put in his dad’s birthday cake in “Spot Bakes a Cake.” The list could go on and on.

For now, Ryan and I simply substitute the words “milk and muffins” for “juice and cupcakes” when we are reading “Corduroy’s Valentines Day” to our daughter, but there is not much we can do about the images shown besides not buy books that depict unhealthy eating habits. I never thought I would be censoring our children’s media because of depictions of unhealthy eating habits, but I am- at least while they are little and do not realize the differences between healthy and unhealthy foods. We do not own or allow our children to read books in which the characters are permitted to be disrespectful to their parents or mean to others because we do not want our children to think those behaviors are acceptable. Similarly, if we would like our children to grow up preferring healthy foods why would we allow them to read books that encourage the opposite, particularly when we know how powerful media exposure is for children? We are trying to build a healthy frame of reference for our children as it pertains to food so hopefully, whenever our children are exposed to unhealthy processed foods, they will be able to identify it for exactly what it is- junk.

*This post is shared on Monday Mania at the Healthy Home Economist.