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Using Media to Promote Healthy Behavior

PEEP and the Big Wide World® characters help bring healthy eating and activity messages to preschoolers

Studies show that children are influenced—often in unhealthy ways—by ads using popular movie and TV characters. Dartmouth researchers want to use these marketing tactics to promote healthy behaviors.

Dartmouth researchers will use characters from the Emmy award-winning educational television series, PEEP and the Big Wide World® to promote health to preschoolers

Dartmouth researchers will use characters from the Emmy award-winning educational television series, PEEP and the Big Wide World® to promote health to preschoolers.

It's a familiar scene: a child convinces a parent to buy a fast food meal or box of breakfast cereal because the packaging features characters from their favorite TV show or movie. Marketing food to children is a $1.79 billion dollar industry in the United States. Food companies use many strategies that encourage children to consume foods high in sugar, salt, and fat, including cross-promotion techniques that link favorite media characters with unhealthy foods. These marketing tactics lead to poor dietary choices, and may contribute to the current childhood obesity epidemic.

Researchers at the Hood Center for Children and Families at the Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth want to harness this powerful cross-promotional marketing tactic for more healthy outcomes. Collaborating with WGBH, the PBS Boston affiliate, they are developing a program that uses children's educational TV characters to help preschoolers develop attitudes and behaviors that may reduce their obesity risk.

"Using Media to Promote Health to Preschoolers" will use characters from the Emmy award-winning educational television series, PEEP and the Big Wide World® to encourage kids to eat more fruits and vegetables and engage in physical activity.

"Entertainment characters are often used to effectively market low-nutrient foods to young children," said Meghan Longacre, principal investigator for the study and Research Assistant Professor, Department of Pediatrics at Geisel School of Medicine and a member of the Norris Cotton Cancer Center. "Our intervention uses this established marketing tactic—linking persuasive messaging with children's favorite characters—to create building blocks for healthy nutrition and physical activity."

The 12-week intervention targets settings where 3-5 year old children spend most time– home and child care—and will be tested in private daycare centers, a public preschool, and a HeadStart program. Parents will be invited to simultaneously use the curriculum at home, and surveys and classroom observations will measure receptiveness and the feasibility of implementing the program. Ongoing teacher and parent support will include a website, hosted by WGBH, with movement-based games and teaching activities.

Meghan Longacre, Research Assistant Professor, Department of Pediatrics at Geisel School of Medicine and member of the Norris Cotton Cancer Center

Meghan Longacre, Research Assistant Professor, Department of Pediatrics at Geisel School of Medicine and member of the Norris Cotton Cancer Center

"This fusion between educational entertainment media and rigorous public health research exemplifies the type of counterprogramming recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics as a unique and collaborative strategy to promote healthy habits in young children," said Longacre.

The link between excess weight and cancer is well documented, and we know that behaviors developed early in life can have long-lasting effects in reducing one's risk for obesity, Longacre stated at a recent NCCC Grand Rounds presentation. Data from the most recent National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey show that one third of children in the US have a weight problem, and that more than one in four children are overweight or obese before they even enter the school system. Reaching these preschoolers with activity and healthy eating messages could have a powerful impact on their health later in life.

Researchers at the Hood Center for Children and Families at the Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth received a two-year, $275,000 grant from the National Institutes of Health for "Using Media to Promote Health to Preschoolers" (NIH Grant #: 1 R21 HD074995 - NIH EXPLORATORY/DEVELOPMENTAL RESEARCH GRANT PROGRAM). In 2009 Longacre received a Norris Cotton Cancer Center Pilot Grant for a preliminary study using social marketing to promote fruit and vegetable intake to young children, which served as the catalyst for the current project. The media based intervention developed in this study builds on two previous NIH funded observational studies obtained by the Hood Center on obesity prevention in children.

September 23, 2013