Why you little! Researchers from University of Minnesota asked about 2,100 kids averaging 14 years old to name their three favorite TV shows. They then coded three episodes each of the 25 most popular shows, looking for food-related content, including perceived healthiness of the food, its portion size, whether the character ate at the dinner table or in front of the TV and other social contexts.
They found Bart, Stewie and crew are bad, bad influences in the food arena:
"Although snacking behaviors on television shows may seem innocuous," the Minnesota team granted, they cite "extensive research" claiming on-screen behaviors create behaviorial social norms that continual viewers can come to see as typical or expected.
According to a 2015 report, adolescents now spend an average of 17 hours per week watching television. Research on smoking, early sexual activity and violence has identified links between viewing entertainment media content and enacting these behaviors. Given enough TV viewing, the Minnesota researchers argue, youth can come to eventually form “pseudofriendships” with television characters and look to them as role models. The strength of their influence may depend how similarly they identify with the character in terms of sex, race or attributes like body type, which makes the unhealthy eating by significantly more of those types of characters in their content analysis particularly important.
They suggest their research points out the fact that the lion's share of media research linked to the obesity epidemic that focuses only on food advertising may be missing the more important programming cues in between the commercials.