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.
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.
“There is a lot to be said in that visual communication has appeal to people, differently to verbal communication,” he said.
“What I quite doubt is that in the long run, for the vast amount of children, that they make this decision just because there’s a smiley face on something healthy and a frowny face on something not so healthy.
“It is a little bit tricky to involve children in a way that they make healthy choices because I think the capacity to decide on that is still not quite developed … so they basically eat based on taste, and maybe looks or visual appeal.”
‘Engagement is definitely the way in’
But senior lecturer in digital media at Deakin University, Adam Brown, said the use of emojis offered a potential solution to the struggle of how to engage children in healthy eating.
“We’re seeing what’s becoming increasingly accepted in educational circles — from corporations, from not-for-profits, the social justice organisations — a crisis in engagement, where people are actually struggling in the … online world that we’re living in to figure out how to engage people,” he said.
“It’s never going to be a cookie-cutter model where one kind of solution works for every problem.
“But the use of emojis in this context would seem to suggest that one way to engage people to change their attitudes and behaviours may well be through adopting these simplified but very vibrant visual form of emojis to basically engage with the minds of young people.
“So, if we can find a way to engage young people, particularly since we’ve got so many health issues that are increasing rather than decreasing, that’s always a fantastic thing. Engagement is definitely the way in.”
Dr Kelly said visual cues that resonate with a particular population — like emojis for children — were “really useful in portraying information quickly and to people with potentially poorer literacy or numeracy skills”.
“The numbers are confusing. You really have to stand there and scrutinise the package,” she said.
Include children in food decisions to develop healthy food habits
Dr Kelly said including children in the food decision making process from a young age was important for developing healthy food habits.
“Empowering children to make healthy food decisions — so giving them the kind of information they might need to guide them in the right way — that’s important for immediate purchases but also for building life-long food habits,” she said.
“Educating children clearly around the right types of foods that they should be consuming for a healthy diet is important and particularly as well informing children around the kids of foods that should be avoided or only consumed sometimes or in small amounts.”
Dr Kelly said the childhood obesity crisis required a multi-faceted response, but that research into how to communicate healthy eating behaviour to children was an important part of the puzzle.
“[Given the] huge amount of unhealthy food promotions that children do see in their everyday lives, anything that stacks the balance to the healthier food choices is a good thing,” she said.
“This is one tiny little step, and point of purchase information is very important as part of a suite of much broader strategies to try to encourage healthy choices and discourage unhealthy choices.”