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Heavy TV Watching Leads to Unhealthy Perceptions of Fast Food Health Risks

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Too much TV viewing harms perception of healthy eating.

Television programs and commercials displaying fast food consumption that target young people are on the rise. While experts agree that television can entertain and inform, most TV programs and advertisements portray no negative consequences of fast food consumption. New research found that the rise of positive fast food imagery on TV strongly biases the views of children and can lead to negative influences on childhood behavior and values. 

A new study titled," The role of television viewing and direct experience in predicting adolescents' beliefs about the health risks of fast-food consumption" published in the journal Appetite, studied the relationship between TV exposure and fast-food beliefs, a previously undocumented relationship in this context. The research finds that heavy TV viewers believe that fast food consumption has more positive consequences and fewer negative consequences than light viewers. In other words, young people who watch a lot of TV exhibit increased positive perceptions of eating fast food and perceive less health risks. As a result, such biased perceptions may result in increased fast-food consumption and thus indirectly contribute to the growing obesity crisis.

Researcher Cristel Russell, an associate professor of marketing with American University's Kogod School of Business, and her colleague Denise Buhrau, Stony Brook University, surveyed over 1,000 teenagers who reported hours of TV viewing, beliefs about the consequences of eating fast food, and their frequency of fast food consumption. In addition to the finding that the amount of TV exposure influences audiences' beliefs about health risks of fast-food consumption, the study also revealed that heavy TV viewers who rarely ate fast food are especially desensitized to the health risk consequences of unhealthy eating. In contrast, young people who regularly ate fast food had an awareness of the health risks associated with eating poorly. According to the study, the perceived health risks, which are rarely portrayed on TV, increase as direct experience with fast food increases and that direct experience tends to regulate the relationship between TV exposure and risk perceptions.

"While personal experience of consuming fast food would lead one to more directly witness and believe the negative outcomes associated with its consumption, those with less personal experience are more susceptible to the influences of TV," said Professor Cristel Russell. "Therefore, we found the strength of the relationship between TV exposure and risk perceptions decreases as actual experience with fast food increases."

"Given the strong association between TV viewing and unhealthy eating habits among youth, public health researchers and practitioners should carefully monitor and perhaps regulate the amount of fast-food advertising on TV and the content of TV programs," said Russell. "Accurate portrayals of food consumption and its consequences are necessary to correct misperceptions among heavy TV viewers. Portrayals of positive food habits, such as the consumption of fruits and vegetables, in youth-oriented programming should also be encouraged, as previous experimental research has shown that such product placements can influence viewers' attitudes toward healthful food."