Today’s cartoons offer a different experience from past generation’s animated entertainment, in which gratuitous violence was the primary concern of worried parents. But what if the material they showed was more subtle in its influence on child behaviour, such as what cartoon characters ate?
Dr Milia Tzoutzou and colleagues have catalogued how cartoon characters interact with their food and how they judge each other – and themselves – based on their physical appearance. What they’ve discovered should concern nutritionists, lawmakers, and parents worldwide.
Read the original article: doi.org/10.3390/sexes2010007
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Hello and welcome to Research Pod. Thank you for listening, and joining us today.
Today we’re talking about the work of Dr Milia Tzoutzou, looking at the mix of media, food consumption, body weight, and gender representation, and what messages may be being sent to children.
For decades, children have sat in front of TV sets, mesmerised and delighted by the antics of their favourite cartoon characters. In that way, today’s children are probably not that different to yourself at that age. Except it’s probably true that today’s cartoon writers and producers are a little more conscious of the ethical lines they shouldn’t cross; after all, children are watching. For example, there are few cartoons today that would risk showing gratuitous violence. But what if what they showed was more surreptitious in its influence on child behaviour? Something you probably wouldn’t notice, such as what cartoon characters ate…
This is something that interests Dr Milia Tzoutzou, research fellow in the Department of Nutrition and Dietetics at the Harokopio University of Athens, Greece, and her colleagues, Professor Antonia Leda-Matalas and Dr Eirini Bathrellou. In her recent research, Dr Tzoutzou has been drawn to food consumption and related messages in children’s and adolescents’ cartoon TV series, and the gender disparities in body weight and food consumption of the cartoon characters. It may, at first, seem a strange area of research, but given how young children are influenced by what they see on TV, you may be thankful that Dr Tzoutzou is keeping an eye on what children watch.
In a series of studies using the top 10 most popular – and arguably most influential – cartoon series on Greek TV, Dr Tzoutzou and her colleagues have catalogued how the characters interact with their food and how they judge each other – and themselves – based on their physical appearance. And what they’ve discovered is, unfortunately, unsurprising, and should concern nutritionists, lawmakers, and parents worldwide, because Greek children’s favourite cartoon characters are on young children’s lunchboxes everywhere.
Do any of the following sound familiar: Ben 10, Dora the Explorer, Jewelpet, Lazy Town, Penguins of Madagascar, Mermaid Melody Pichi Pichi Pitch, SpongeBob SquarePants, Teen Days, Tom and Jerry, and Tutenstein? Just like in many parts of the world, they’re the most popular children’s cartoon TV series in Greece, and Dr Tzoutzou and her colleagues selected ten random episodes of each for their research. Over three studies, they coded every character in terms of gender and body weight status, the food around them, what they ate, their attitudes towards various types of food; and, importantly, how the character’s body images are defined by their fellow characters and themselves. The aim of the studies was to get a clearer idea of what messages children were receiving about what is good to eat and what is good to look like.
Characters’ body weight status was classified into ‘underweight’, ‘normal weight’ and ‘overweight’, and foods consumed as ‘core’ – or healthy, such as fruit and vegetables – and ‘non-core’ such as sweets and snacks and the other foodstuffs from the nutritionist black list. In total, there were 37 main characters across the ten different series; most of these were male, or male coded. In terms of their weight status, more than half of the main characters – 57% – were classified as of ‘normal’ weight, 27% as ‘thin’ and 16% as ‘overweight’. But when considering gender, worrying disparities emerged. Of the ten main characters coded as ‘thin’, seven were female figures, while among the six heroic main characters who were overweight, only one was female, specifically a young girl.
But there was less subtle messaging about body image and how characters viewed themselves and others in terms of their body status. Here Dr Tzoutzou and her colleagues coded oral comments such as, ‘You look great’ or ‘Wow!’ as positive and ‘Oh my goodness, look at me, what a disaster!’ as negative. But they also coded non-vocal reactions such as a wide-eyed look of approval or the disappointment on a character’s face when they struggled to get into a pair of jeans. Here, the results were overwhelming: every positive message about appearance directed towards female characters was directed at those who were thin. Female characters who were coded as ‘overweight’ never received any positive comments about their appearance. Overall, the majority (51 out of 58) of the positive comments on physical appearance were recorded for slim and attractive characters, either expressed by fellow characters or the characters themselves.
So, what then was the connection between food the cartoon characters consumed and their appearance? The researchers classified the food into ten food categories. These were: bakery and cereals, dairy, fruits, meat and seafood, vegetables, convenience foods and snacks, sweets, soft drinks; ‘non-identifiable food’, and ‘other food’. The classification wasn’t arbitrary. It was based on the Greek National Dietary Guideline for Infants, Children and Adolescents. But the researchers didn’t just code the foods the characters consumed, but also the nature of food cues – how foods were portrayed and how the characters referred to foods, including drinks, that they didn’t necessarily eat, eg, a character opening a fridge and saying, ‘Wow, pizza!’, or conversely, a shot of the open fridge containing only vegetables and the character groaning with frustration. These cues were registered as either positive, negative, or neutral.
Several things stood out. Firstly, of the 179 different foods eaten in all the episodes, snacks, sweets, and soft drinks were not only eaten more often but in episodes where a higher frequency of food consumption was recorded, then the consumption of sweets, snacks, and soft drinks was significantly higher, with characters usually consuming snacks and soft drinks together. Vegetables and fruits – core-foods for a healthy child’s diet – represented only 24% of the foods eaten.
Significantly, there was an imbalance when it came to which cartoon characters ate what. Characters coded as ‘overweight’ were shown eating more food than other characters. In fact, those characters coded as ‘thin’ were never shown eating at all. Moreover, overweight characters showed a distinct preference to non-core foods. By crunching data, the researchers showed that even though overweight characters comprised less than a fifth of the total number of cartoon characters, they ate almost half the food and well over half the non-core, or snacky, food.
Where the characters ate what also proved eye-opening. When the cartoon characters tore into non-core food, they usually did it home, invariably while watching TV themselves. They were mainly presented with the healthier core food in restaurants and coffee shops, or outside. So, what message could that possibly be sending youngsters watching?
It’s a good question, and one we should be asking. But should we be reaching for the off-switch on the TV?
Ask any exhausted parent of active young children how they feel about TV cartoons, and they’d probably admit to the joys of snatching a well-earned break while their kids stared into the screen. They’d also acknowledge that every cartoon has its faults, and probably no cartoon is ideal for their children to watch. As Dr Tzoutzou and her colleagues have shown this is clearly the case in terms of the balance of cartoon characters’ relationship with food and the links between food, weight status, and attractiveness.
How much such messaging affects young viewers’ food choices and their perceptions of their physical appearance and that of others remains to be seen, but this research into children’s TV cartoons has certainly opened our eyes into what young viewers may think is best to go into their tummies, and what it’s best to look like.
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