Study finds social and psychological factors fuel teen cravings for ultra-processed foods during screen time

A recent study published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics discusses adolescents' perceptions, attitudes, and motivations regarding the consumption of ultra-processed food products during screen time.

Study: Screen Time Use and Ultra-Processed Food Consumption in Adolescents: A Focus Group Qualitative Study. Image Credit: Antonio Guillem / Shutterstock.com Study: Screen Time Use and Ultra-Processed Food Consumption in Adolescents: A Focus Group Qualitative Study. Image Credit: Antonio Guillem / Shutterstock.com

Risk factors for obesity and being overweight

A national health survey conducted in Spain in 2017 reported a prevalence of 18% and 10% of overweight and obesity among children and adolescents, respectively. Since then, the rising prevalence of obesity and overweight among adolescents has remained a significant public health concern worldwide.

Obesity is a major risk factor for severe non-communicable diseases, including cardiovascular disease, diabetes, musculoskeletal disease, and certain cancers. An imbalance between energy intake and expenditure is the main contributor to overweight and obesity.

Several lifestyle factors, such as lack of physical activity and consumption of ultra-processed foods, also significantly contribute to overweight and obesity. Eating during screen time, a typical adolescent behavior can also lead to increased consumption of unhealthy foods.

Existing evidence indicates that food advertisements watched by adolescents during screen time can potentially influence their decisions to purchase and consume ultra-processed foods, which are high in calories, trans-fats, and sugars.

In the current study, scientists explore adolescents' perceptions, attitudes, and motivations regarding consuming ultra-processed foods during screen time. The perceived educational needs of adolescents regarding nutrition and their knowledge about ultra-processed foods were also assessed.

Study design

The study cohort, conducted in May 2022, included 30 adolescents between 12 and 16 years of age. Study participants were categorized into four focus groups according to their secondary education grades.  

Focus groups were presented with a questionnaire that included three topics for discussion. These topics included participants' experiences and motivations related to ultra-processed food consumption during screen time, their knowledge about healthy and unhealthy diets, and their perceived educational needs on the topic of changing screen-time food behaviors.

An inductive thematic analysis of the participant-derived transcripts was performed to identify patterns of meaning and questions of interest in relation to the study.

Important observations

The thematic analysis identified three themes related to screen time use, including eating habits, motivations for ultra-processed food consumption, and attitudes and perceptions about ultra-processed food consumption.

Eating habits

Most study participants reported using a smartphone, electronic tablet, or television daily during breakfast, lunch, mid-afternoon snacks, or dinner time. Screen time was more frequent when the study participants were alone at home.

Study participants reported consuming ultra-processed foods more frequently during snack time and on special occasions. The most commonly consumed ultra-processed foods were savory snacks, sugary breakfast cereals, cookies, and candies.  

Almost all participants considered ultra-processed foods unhealthy; however, they were unaware of specific adverse health effects associated with these foods. In general, the study participants believed that the adverse health effects of these products could be mitigated by maintaining a balance between consumption of these unhealthy foods and homemade healthy foods.

Most study participants expressed their concerns about understanding nutrition labels and learning about foods, whereas the remaining minority relied on their parents about eating habits.  

Motivations for ultra-processed food consumption

Most study participants reported that their social environment can influence the type of foods they consume during screen time. More specifically, they mentioned consuming ultra-processed foods at home without parental supervision. In contrast, being with family members at home influenced the study participants to consume healthier and more diverse diets.

Some participants reported being influenced by food availability, advertisements, and social acceptance of ultra-processed foods. Being with friends is another influencing factor, as this was perceived as a special occasion.

Most study participants considered healthy eating an essential measure for good health and that this practice is a shared responsibility between themselves and their families.

Attitudes and perceptions about ultra-processed food consumption

Most study participants reported experiencing cravings for ultra-processed foods due to hunger sensations and positive memories about consuming these foods in social gatherings, which, in turn, influenced them to consume these foods during screen time.

On-screen advertisements about ultra-processed foods and social recommendations about these foods significantly influenced screen time eating habits.

Despite providing satisfaction and fulfilling cravings, ultra-processed food consumption during screen time was reported to frequently induce a sense of psychological discomfort or guilt related to compulsive consumption and difficult-to-control automated eating behaviors.   

Regarding compensatory behaviors, some participants reported reducing the adverse effects of ultra-processed foods by performing regular physical activities. In contrast, some participants reported restricting the consumption of these foods to a specific frequency.

Several participants reported experiencing disappointment, anger, the feeling of unfulfillment, or intense frustration when ultra-processed foods were unavailable.

Study significance

Certain factors, including loneliness, social gatherings, and parental attitudes towards ultra-processed food consumption, significantly influence adolescents during screen time.

Journal reference:
  • Rodríguez-Barniol, M., Pujol-Busquets, G., & Bach-Faig, A. (2024) Screen Time Use and Ultra-Processed Food Consumption in Adolescents: A Focus Group Qualitative Study. Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. doi:10.1016/j.jand.2024.04.015.  
Dr. Sanchari Sinha Dutta

Written by

Dr. Sanchari Sinha Dutta

Dr. Sanchari Sinha Dutta is a science communicator who believes in spreading the power of science in every corner of the world. She has a Bachelor of Science (B.Sc.) degree and a Master's of Science (M.Sc.) in biology and human physiology. Following her Master's degree, Sanchari went on to study a Ph.D. in human physiology. She has authored more than 10 original research articles, all of which have been published in world renowned international journals.

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