Emoticons are used to communicate a lot these days. Adding a smiley face or a sad face to a text quickly lets your friends know how you’re feeling. But what if emoticons could help reduce rising childhood obesity? What if emoticons could help kids learn how to make healthy food choices?
In a study published in the 2014 International Journal of Child Health and Nutrition, psychologists Gregory Privitera from St. Bonaventure University and his colleagues found that when food is labeled with emoticons — happy ones to depict healthy food and sad faces for less healthy options — children are more likely to make better choices about what to eat .
For their study, Privitera and his colleagues recruited 75 pre-K through fifth graders from a small private school in the western New York area..
“Children were first given a pretest to determine how well they related emoticons with health. In the pretest, children were shown two food pictures with emoticons next to each food, and were asked to circle the healthy food (the food with the happy emoticon) for one trial and to circle the food that was not healthy (the food with the sad emoticon) in a second trial. The pretest scores were recorded, and no grade level scored 100% on this pretest.”
Following the pretest, the children were given a two-hour health lesson that linked a happy face emoticon with “good for your body” healthy foods and a sad face emoticon with “not as good for your body” unhealthy foods. After the lesson, the children were given the same test as before, and every child scored 100 percent.
Following the lesson, the children were presented with a dozen round food containers, which they could not see into. “Upon arriving at the table, each child was told, “Thank you for coming. We are trying to pick foods to include in the cafeteria for snacks, and we would like your help choosing foods.” The children were not told what foods were in the containers. However, all the containers were labeled with emoticons. “The labels on containers were used to mimic labeling that could be found on standard food packaging,” explain the researchers.
The researchers found that “a significant proportion of children used the emoticons to make food choices and that their choices were specifically for healthy foods (those foods with a happy emoticon)… Hence, ‘emolabeling’ — the use of emoticons to relate the healthfulness of a food — can effectively be used to promote healthy food choices among children.”
The researchers also found that “competing information” found on food packages, such as information on taste, branding and popularity did not impact the effectiveness of using emoticons.
“This study shows that among children who used the emoticons, they largely used them to make healthy food choices, meaning that such a strategy can specifically promote healthier food choices among children aged 3 to 11 years,” the researchers write.
“Emolabeling can address factors related to the child (children can use emoticons to make healthy food choices), family (emoticons can make it easier for parents to teach about health to children) and school (schools can adopt the “faces of health” lesson used here and in), which are factors that account for the greatest proportion of variance in explaining childhood obesity.”