NIH Spending $433,577 to Find Out What Kids Think of Fat Characters in Movies

'Obesogenic’ culture the subject of government study

Children watching television
December 24, 2014

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) is spending almost a half million dollars to determine what children think about fat characters in movies.

Children’s perceptions of "obesogenic" culture in films, or the promotion of excessive weight gain, is the subject of the $433,577 study being conducted by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

The researchers have concluded that children’s movies are confusing because they make fun of fat characters, while also promoting unhealthy behaviors like drinking soda and watching television.

"Children receive cultural messages about appropriate eating, exercise, and attitudes from a variety of influences, likely including family, friends, schools, religious institutions, and electronic culture (television, movies, and video games)," the grant explains. "One important source of culture in the world for children is children's movies."

The grant also claims that minority children watch more movies than others.

"Children have access to many movies and the ability to view them over and over again, contributing to significant daily exposure, more for children from minority backgrounds," it said. "These movies provide cues to normative behavior and experiences widely shared among similar-age children nationally and even worldwide."

The study argues that not enough research has been conducted on children’s feelings on obese characters.

"Our team's preliminary work has examined movies and found top-grossing G- and PG-rated movies depict unhealthy eating and sedentary activity as the norm, while simultaneously mocking overweight characters," the grant said. "The presentation of obesity, therefore, is condemning with the depiction of unhealthy food and exercise choices as positive."

"Research examining how children interpret these messages from culture, however, is scant."

The researchers singled out Kung Fu Panda, Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakuel, and Shrek the Third, for making fat jokes in their first published paper for the study last year.

"These children’s movies offer a discordant presentation about food, exercise and weight status, glamorizing unhealthy eating and sedentary behavior yet condemning obesity itself," said Eliana M. Perrin, MD, MPH, associate professor of pediatrics in the UNC School of Medicine and lead researcher for the NIH project.

The study found that many children’s movies contain "weight-based stigma" and had "significant ‘obesogenic’ content."

The project is scheduled to continue until August of next year.