By Eliza Buzacott-Speer.
As Australia grapples with how to combat a childhood obesity crisis, a group of US researchers have suggested the humble emoji may hold the key to encouraging children to make healthier food decisions.
According to the Federal Government, one in four children in Australia are overweight or obese, and numerous programs have been implemented across the country to try and tackle the problem.
But a recent US study published in the journal Appetite found that adding “emolabels” to foods — similar to the smiling or frowning faces many of us use when text messaging — meant children were more likely to make healthy food decisions.
The study looked at the food choices of children aged between five and 11, who were given a brief lesson on the meaning of the emolabels before being asked to choose four food items from two aisles set up to look like a grocery store.
Half of the 12 items were labelled with smiley face stickers on nutritious options and frowning face stickers on less healthy foods, while the other half were without labels.
Greg Privitera, study leader and research chair at the University of Phoenix’s Centre for Behavioural Health Research, told the Washington Post: “The thought that came to mind was, ‘Why aren’t we involving children and empowering them to be part of the solution?'”
Dr Privitera said children lacked the health literacy — which the study described as “the ability to acquire health-related knowledge” — to make food decisions based on nutritional information.
However, he said they were able to understand emotional expressions from an early age.
“Children are wonderfully brilliant at emotion,” Dr Privitera said.
“As young as six months to one year, they can accurately use basic expressions of emotions to make decisions that make perfect emotional sense.”
According to the Washington Post, the study found that when the emolabels were used, 83 per cent of the children switched one of their food choices to a healthy option.
“That tells us that children are using [this] health information to make choices about their food,” Dr Privitera said.
Children ‘basically eat based on taste’
Senior lecturer in public health nutrition at the University of Wollongong, Bridget Kelly, told the ABC most research so far into the influence of point-of-purchase information had centred on adult consumers.
“There have been multiple studies looking at point-of-purchase information, so what’s called ‘shelf talkers’ or what’s available ‘just in time’ to make a purchase,” she said.
“There have been mixed results, but it has shown that it influences product purchases in a positive way.
“Most of that research has been done on adults to date, so it’s quite useful to add some data around how that might impact on children’s purchasing behaviours.”
Dr Kelly pointed to strategies like traffic light labelling, the use of mobile phone applications and Australia’s health star rating system as examples of these “shelf talkers”.
“The emoji intervention is just an extension of that and something that children can really relate to,” she said.
Olaf Werder, lecturer and degree director in Health Communication at the University of Sydney, said the argument children could recognise and interpret the meaning of emotions at a young age had some merit.
But he expressed doubt at the long-term effectiveness of a health strategy aimed at children.