Picky Eating Research Gains Sensationalist Headlines

At every news outlet around the world there must be the same conversation happening day after day, week after week. It will initially be about website hits, social media engagement and conversions and the discussion will continue like this:

“Should we spend time and effort crafting some truly penetrating pieces of journalism, displaying richness and depth and earning our readership in a noble manner?”

“Nah, let’s just put another parenting scare story out.”

“You mean the kind that is based on a scientific study which is wholly unsensational, but where we take a few facts out of context, in order to petrify people?”

“The very same.”

This week’s study is about how picky eating is a sign of mental illness and parents and doctors have been disastrously wrong to just presume for decades that kids will grow out of it. Except it doesn’t really say that…

Broccoli

There were 3,000 children aged between two and six studied by the Duke Centre for Eating Disorders. A fifth (600) were branded selective eaters. Of that fifth, 18 percent (108) were ‘moderately picky’ and three percent (18) were ‘severely picky’.

The research says that these 126 children out of 3,000 were twice as likely to display symptoms of depression and anxiety as the ‘normal’ eaters. You’ll note that it doesn’t say that they will definitely develop a mental illness, just that they are at greater risk. The Mental Health Foundation says that ten percent of children suffer a mental health issue at any one time, which would mean, following the logic of the study, that twenty percent of the moderate and severe picky eaters might.

This crude maths would suggest that 25 children out of 3,000 studied will display the link between picky eating and depression and anxiety – hugely sad, but not a significant enough percentage of the group to press the panic button if your little darling turns their nose up at a plate of runner beans. This is a small number of children, it is less than one percent!

However, every newspaper seems to have jumped on this story, fervently trying to whip up a frenzy because they know that parents are suckers for scare stories. We obsess about our children’s health, and even more so about what they are eating and how much. We are primed to click on this sort of article when it pops up in our Facebook timeline. I have no idea why we want to hear these horror stories. but we do – human nature is a funny old thing.

That’s why these figures are manipulated, cut and pasted and splashed all over websites. It’s reckless, unfair and downright lazy. They just hope we are all too sleep deprived to see through the hyperbole. And usually we are.

Anyway. That was quite hardcore and serious, here’s a cute video to lighten the mood.

5 Comments

  1. I spend my life trying to reassure worried parents that have read yet another of these scare stores.
    Most of the time the journalists base their stories on press releases, or worse still, some other journalists version of the press release. Hardly anyone ever reads the actual research results but when I do it always reveals a totally different, much less sensational, story (hence why the truth is rarely accurately reported).
    Once I show the parents what is really being said, they always calm down and relax. I then make sure they know how to do the same thing for themselves the next time they are freaked out by someone trying to sell a headline.
    Thank you for pointing this out, I wish more people would.
    One of the aims of my blog is to lead parents through this situation so they are never hoodwinked again,
    Sarah x

  2. I’ve been known to rant about this subject pretty loudly myself. Media nowadays is nothing more than attention grabbing headlines.

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