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Leading Expert on Childhood Obesity Illustrates Power of Media in Promoting Healthy Habits

America’s childhood obesity epidemic is a national crisis, but with proper utilization of media and marketing, healthcare providers and caregivers can course correct. Amy Jordan, Annenberg School for Communication Associate Dean for Undergraduate Studies, discussed her research into this tactic during the 2017 Van Zelst Lecture in Communication held April 3 in Northwestern’s Norris Center.

Amy Jordan, Dean O'Keefe, and five others pose for a picture at the Van Zelst Lecture in Communciation
From left: Dean Barbara O’Keefe, Anne Orvieto, Amy Jordan, Louann Van Zelst, David Van Zelst, Ellen Wartella, Jean Bierner

“Childhood obesity is a serious health issue,” Jordan said. “It can lead to joint problems, high cholesterol readings, sleep apnea, and Type 2 Diabetes. Type 2 Diabetes used to be called adult-onset diabetes, but now this disease has become prominent in children as well. If left untreated, can lead to blindness, amputations, and heart disease.” 

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, childhood obesity has more than doubled in children and quadrupled in adolescents in the past thirty years. Jordan, whose father suffered from Type 2 Diabetes, said the topic for her was personal. She added that there were many factors in contributing to the growing numbers of overweight children, including more screen time, and specifically, what screens were used most often. She cited research indicating that people tend to eat more while watching television than they do when listening to music.

Jordan, who works as Director of the Communication and Dissemination Core for the UPenn Prevention Research Center, said poverty and class also play a role. Jordan’s said Philadelphia, where her research is based, ranks as fifth largest in size but is overall the poorest city in the nation. It also has one of the highest obesity rates — forty percent of children are overweight or obese.

Joran and her colleagues focus on trying to reduce intake of sugar-sweetened beverages, or SSBs, such as sodas and juice. Research shows that drinking just two sugar-sweetened beverages a day lead to a gain of ten pounds a year by the average consumer. Companies also market sugar-sweetened beverages to children, she said, in a marketplace where there are no regulations to curb their access to this demographic.

Jordan, who wrote Media and the Well-being of Children and Adolescents as well as Children, Adolescents, and Media: The Future of Research and Action, pointed to a chart where most sugar-sweetened beverages contained between eight and nineteen teaspoons of sugar, which she said equaled more than two candy bars.

“SSBs are the single-largest source of extra sugar intake for children,” she said.

Jordan worked with the CDC to create a marketing campaign to help educate Philadelphia-area parents about the dangers of SSBs. The campaign needed to be culturally sensitive and resonate with viewers; she was given $1 million for TV, radio, and print ads.

“This sounds like a lot, until you realize that same year the beverage industry spent $800 million advertising to children and adolescents across the nation,” she said.

Jordan surveyed parents about their children’s drink habits, and found that many parents did not know how much sugar really was in the average SSB — and feared making their children unhappy if they took the drinks away. Parental denial also became a serious issue, she added, in that only eight percent of parents surveyed said they felt their children were overweight. They also found, however, that parents did worry about issues like diabetes.

Jordan showed the audience the ad they eventually made: it portrayed a mother driving her son home after a doctor’s appointment, at which she is told her son is overweight and at risk of diabetes — a large culprit of his problem being SSBs. Looking at a bottle of orange soda, she thinks about how she wished she knew earlier of their danger, and how she now plans to do something about it.

The ad, Jordan said, ended up resonating with parents, who wanted to do something healthy for their children.

“Over time, rates of childhood obesity in Philadelphia are starting to go down,” Jordan said. She added that it’s important that we look for more ways to connect with parents and try to figure out how to better communicate healthy messages.

“We need to use what we know in the field of communication to change the conversation,” she said. “Together, we can change parents’ ideas about healthy choices.”

Communication Studies Department Chair Ellen Wartella called Jordan’s work groundbreaking. “Her work is the model in the nation for combating childhood obesity,” she said.

School of Communication Dean Barbara O’Keefe said the lecture was one more way the Van Zelst gift continues to broaden perspectives at the school.

“The Van Zelst lecture is an annual celebration of scholarship and artistic development,” said O’Keefe, as she thanked the Van Zelst family for their longstanding generosity. “In thirty-four years, this gift has made a large-scale impact on the School and the field of communication.”

-Cara Lockwood