Dr. Ellen Wartella speaks about media influence on obesity

Dr. Ellen Wartella, director of Northwestern University’s Center on Media and Human Development in Evanston, Illinois and the chair of an international task force crafting policies to combat childhood obesity, previewed a forthcoming global study which will advocate solutions to a growing global problem with deep implications for the U.S. and Qatar to an audience at Northwestern University in Qatar on Tuesday evening.

Dr. Wartella has published widely in communication and psychology journals on children’s media issues, and has been a principal investigator in numerous nationally-funded research studies and review committees on advertising and child development, and is frequently consulted by policymakers.

“New evidence shows that childhood obesity is a societal problem more than it is an individual problem – and needs societal solutions,” she said.   The best intelligence on the subject has come from a chorus of voices from medicine and public health, social policy and media, she reported.

In her lecture, Dr. Wartella discussed the results of recent studies by the Institute of Medicine (IOM) on childhood obesity, the related physical and psychological consequences, and factors influencing risk – with a focus on the contribution by the food and beverage marketing industry to this growing international epidemic.

“Obesity is a huge problem, globally,” said Dr. Wartella.  “As humans we have not changed over time genetically – yet the prevalence of obesity has changed significantly.   We need to look to behavior and environment as factors, and we need to start our focus on children in order to prevent more severe, future health issues.”

A study conducted by the IOM in 2005-2006, in which Wartella was a committee member, reviewed the evidence of media and food marketing practices that influence the diet of children and adolescents.  The study systematically reviewed television advertising and available literature to examine the impact food marketing had on a child’s food preference.  The outcome of this study offered recommended strategies that would promote a healthful diet.

The study itself acknowledged not only traditional advertising – print and television, but also recognized the new, emerging marketing strategies and techniques that have entered children’s lives from advertising at schools and celebrity/character endorsements to social media and videogames.

Dr. Wartella stated that after the study was released, that the food and beverage industry did make efforts to better label foods indicating nutritional information, reformulate products, and even produced new healthier products.   Food and beverage companies have also taken the initiative not to advertise unhealthy foods to certain young age groups – across all media platforms.  The government is also formulating policy related to food marketing and broadcasting.  The US Congress asked the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to conduct a study on Front of Pack Food labeling to ensure clarity and better consumer understanding.  The report and recommendations will be released at the end of the month.

The role of media in promoting understanding of childhood obesity has been “important and increasingly so,” said Wartella, who praised news media for consistently following the story and its impact on people and society, but scored entertainment media who “haven’t yet caught up or made this an important part of their story narrative,” she said.

While cautioning against unscrupulous marketeers, she praised industry sources and new forms of marketing and media that are getting the message out—constrictively and well.   “We are moving in the right direction,” said Dr. Wartella.  But more can be done.  “For example, as part of a corporate social responsibility program, media companies can be more assertive about not showing non-nutritional advertising to children.  These companies need to develop nutritional guidelines for advertisers.  Further, communication professionals need to better weave messages about the risks of obesity in narratives in order to raise public awareness and initiate change.”

The media scholar was praised by NU-Q dean Everette E. Dennis for her role translating research knowledge into policy recommendation, noting, “Dr. Wartella is preeminent among scholars who do this and has an enviable reputation and a worldwide impact.”

The Qatar audience at Education City was among the first to get a briefing on a forthcoming global study on the consequences of childhood obesity and early onset diabetes, which said is urgent, growing and getting worse in spite of efforts by health experts, media and the food and beverage industries.  Dr. Wartella holds the Al-Thani professorship in communication, psychology and human development at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois and was in Doha to inaugurate a new series at NU-Q which brings the institution’s top faculty here.

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