(Some of) What we learned through a health intervention program for elementary school children

aejmc15Papers presented August 7, 2015 at the annual conference of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication, San Francisco, Calif. Information about accessing specific papers available by visiting the Academia page on dylanmclemore.com.

Recently, researchers with the University of Alabama Health Communication Lab spent two weeks with second- and third-grade children at a racially diverse public elementary school. We conducted a health intervention, leading physical education activities, talking about health and nutrition, and using new technologies to encourage physical activity and healthy diets. These are a portion of those findings:

Media Effect on Children’s Health

Media use is a popular target of blame for childhood health problems, particularly obesity. It is widely assumed that media use limits exercise by increasing sedentary activity, though most studies find that media simply displaces other types of sedentary activity. A second proposed media effect is that media content (especially advertising) teaches unhealthy attitudes and behaviors regarding nutrition. And while content analyses of children’s television programming find enough sugary snacks to rot your teeth, it’s less clear how effective those messages are at influencing children.

We asked children in our health intervention to report how often they consumed various media (not just television – a limitation of many prior studies). Turns out, pre-existing media use did not significantly moderate intervention effects on attitudes or knowledge. Perhaps more surprising, media use did not affect baseline values before the intervention. In other words, whether children were glued to their screens or were playing outside, what they knew and how they felt about exercising and eating healthy was roughly the same.

Existing studies largely emanate from medical disciplines, where many of the measures are behavioral or biological, and assume a powerful media effects paradigm that has been disputed for over 50 years. This study, grounded in communication theory, rebuffs the century-old powerful media effects paradigm and suggests that media influence on the formation of children’s knowledge and attitudes is less evident.

Active Video Games

As part of the physical education intervention, children took a break from real-life play to engage in active video game play. Using a series of sports training games for the Wii, we measured children’s heart-rate, as well as self-reports of enjoyment and exertion. One of the papers to come out of the Wii sessions focused on the efficacy of active video games as a physical activity option for African American children. African American children are typically less physically active than White children. Two causes were particular relevant to the present study – negative attitudes toward physical activity and limited access to quality places for such activity.

We found that the Wii games each resulted in increases in heart rate mimicking that of real-life physical activity. This was true regardless of gender or weight status. Even better, children enjoyed playing the games, and reported desire to continue to play. However, real-world play could not be disregarded. For at least one game – a basketball drill – perceived efficacy at real basketball predicted enjoyment of the simulated game. The results suggest that active video games might provide alternative physical activity spaces that are enjoyed and desired by African American children.

Tablet-Sized Portions

Children used an iPad app designed by the researchers to keep track of the foods they ate at each meal. Compared to pre-intervention measures, children’s nutritional knowledge significantly improved as they thought about the types and portions of food they ate. The results suggest that the interactivity offered by touch technologies may make for an accessible, appealing way to not only present nutrition information to children, but to engage them with it.

Taken together, we learned that the various unhealthy messages in media may not be as impactful as widely believed. However, interactive media offer viable routes to engaging children in exercise and learning about nutrition.

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