Monday, January 27, 2014

U.S. children: overweight and oversexed?

Psychologists decry the cultural and marketing trends that are undermining children's mental—and physical—health.

Whether it's Tony the Tiger or the Pussycat Dolls, today's children are bombarded with advertising and entertainment images that negatively affect their development-and in the name of social justice, psychologists need to help curtail those trends, said psychologists at APA's Annual Convention.

Among the most troubling cultural trends is the objectification of pre-teen girls, said Tomi-Ann Roberts, PhD, a member of the APA Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls, which delivered its report earlier this year.

The task force defines sexualization as a process that encourages girls and young women in an imposed way to be valued by themselves, and others, only for their sexual appeal, above any other characteristic. Ultimately, the emphasis on an unattainable body image damages the health and self-image of girls and young women, and can lead to eating disorders, anxiety and depression, Roberts said.

The task force recommends comprehensive education about sexualization for girls, said Roberts, who said participating in sports, artistic expression and meditation can help girls connect to a healthier self-image.

Direct action can also fight the trend, she added. A letter-writing campaign led by the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, a national coalition of health-care professionals, educators, advocacy groups and parents, along with coalition member Dads and Daughters, over marketing toy versions of the singing group the Pussycat Dolls, led to the product's cancellation.

"If we get really angry, it sounds like they might be listening," she said.

Stereotyping girls

From the beginning, girls are coached by advertisers and the media to be sweet, feminine and nurturing, and-as they get slightly older-sexy, said Sharon Lamb, EdD, co-author of "Packaging Girlhood: Rescuing Our Daughters from Marketers' Schemes" (St. Martin's Press, 2006), at a continuing-education session about advertising's effect on children

"Rarely are real girls with complex and contradictory interests portrayed," noted Lamb, who served on the APA Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls. In some cases, girls are simply absent: A study of 101 G-rated films conducted by the See Jane project of Dads and Daughters found that three out of four characters were boys. When girls are included, they are there only to assist boys, and they are unable to do anything on their own. Even the formerly strong female cartoon character "Dora the Explorer" has been co-opted for marketing purposes. Instead of her usual gear of map, compass and backpack, new versions of Dora dolls carry purses and come in a "princess" edition.

After what Lamb calls the "pretty-in-pink" stage, girls are increasingly coached to be sexy and to find power in making themselves attractive to boys. Products such as thong underwear and padded bras are made for girls as young as 6, she said.

"Boys have journeys, girls have makeovers," she added.

Sexualized images are linked to depression, low self-esteem and eating disorders in women, Lamb explained.

Lamb emphasized that psychologists can help combat these messages by teaching parents and their children to understand media manipulation. Parents have the power to teach kids values that they-not advertising or the culture-define, said Lamb. They can show their children how to examine why they like the things they like, and to realize when they're being duped.

And everyone needs to learn to ask questions such as: "Why must female volleyball players always wear bikinis?" and "Why would a 6-year-old need a push-up bra?" said Lamb.

Kids and parents can also write to companies and support consumer-advocacy groups that work to counter unhealthy media messages, Lamb concluded.

Supersize youth

The culture's not just selling sex at inappropriate ages, but is promoting unhealthy eating behaviors among all children, said Brian Wilcox, PhD, of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

In the past few decades, children have become increasingly targeted by marketers, such that an estimated $15 billion was spent by various companies pitching fast food, sugary cereals and junk food to kids, said Wilcox, with much of the advertising appearing on cable channels aimed at children, such as Nickelodeon.

All that advertising has an effect, both on families' purchasing patterns and children's health, with studies showing that children's product preferences drive almost $500 million in annual household purchases. Meanwhile, 16 percent of U.S. children are obese, and government surveys show that the percentage of children classified as overweight rose from 5 percent to almost 14 percent from 1976 to 2000, Wilcox said.

The relentless blitz is a matter of social justice, because young children lack the cognitive capacity to evaluate the advertising, and understand the motives of the marketers, he said.

"Advertising to young children is inherently unfair, and on fairness and justice grounds should be banned," Wilcox said.

Speaker Barbara Fiese, PhD, of Syracuse University, added that the high rate of child obesity in low-income neighborhoods is in part caused by fast-food restaurants, a lack of playgrounds and the need to stay indoors for safety. But one other factor might be the fact that families affected by poverty have a hard time organizing regular mealtimes.

Recently, Fiese studied mealtime behaviors of low-income families, using a videocamera to record their interactions. She found that families with obese children didn't talk to one another in a relaxed way during meals and were more likely to have televisions turned on.

In response, Fiese and her fellow researchers created a "family mealtime behavior toolkit," which urges families to gather together at least four times a week, for as short as 18 minutes for dinner. The kit's three steps are designed to make meals enjoyable: turning off all televisions, cell phones and electronic devices at or near the table; saying "please" and "thank you" when serving food; and centering conversation on family members' days.

Other studies have shown that families that eat together in a relaxed, fun manner with time for planning and meal preparation together have a lower risk of obesity.

"It's only 18 minutes, it's less than the length of a situation comedy," Fiese said.

By Christopher Munsey
Laurie Meyers

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