Harrison, professor of communication studies and faculty associate at the U-M Institute for Social Research, studies predictors of early-childhood obesity by investigating the impact of family TV exposure on what preschoolers eat and what these young kids think about healthy eating. She believes the information may help predict the kinds of decisions preschoolers make about food as they grow older.
She says that doing research on 3- and 4-year-olds can be challenging, since kids that age can't necessarily verbalize what they're thinking or what they know. Her solution? The Placemat Protocol.
Harrison created a giant plastic placemat with six pie-shaped sections, each labeled with a different food group, such as beverages or milk and dairy. Preschoolers are asked to assemble a meal they would most like to eat if they could eat anything by placing plastic toy foods—three healthy and three "junky"—in each of the different food sections on the placemat. The kids are then be asked to put together a healthy meal.
Harrison and colleague Mericarmen Peralta conducted the Placemat Protocol with 250 children at 18 preschools in Washtenaw, Wayne and Jackson counties over a two-year period. They asked them questions about food brand recognition and obtained body mass index measurements. They also interviewed parents about family characteristics, including how much commercial television the family watches and what their child eats.
They found that preschoolers who watched more TV were more likely to eat foods that could lead to obesity and more likely to assemble meals consisting of junk food.
The results are important, Harrison says, not only because they show that TV ads are giving kids the wrong idea about what foods are healthy, but also because kids who eat too much junk food at an early age and put on extra pounds are more likely to grow up obese.
"The next step, of course, would be to see if those perceptions in preschool actually predict their food choice behaviors over time," Harrison said. "Because when it comes to obesity, prevention is where it's at. Parents are struggling with their own situations—they're constrained by family circumstances. But if you can get the kids to make choices that in the long run are going to benefit them, that's the way to go."
Established in 1949, the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research is the world's largest academic social science survey and research organization, and a world leader in developing and applying social science methodology, and in educating researchers and students from around the world. ISR conducts some of the most widely cited studies in the nation, including the Thomson Reuters/University of Michigan Surveys of Consumers, the American National Election Studies, the Monitoring the Future Study, the Panel Study of Income Dynamics, the Health and Retirement Study, the Columbia County Longitudinal Study and the National Survey of Black Americans. ISR researchers also collaborate with social scientists in more than 60 nations on the World Values Surveys and other projects, and the institute has established formal ties with universities in Poland, China and South Africa. ISR is also home to the Inter-University Consortium for Political and Social Research, the world's largest digital social science data archive. For more information, visit the ISR website at www.isr.umich.edu.