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Childhood obesity COVID-19

Changing the conversation on children’s health in the context of COVID-19

16 February 2022
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4 min read

When it comes to discussing complex issues around health, the words we use matter.

Rachel Pidgeon
Rachel Pidgeon
Portfolio Manager
Maria Castellina
Maria Castellina
Director of Impact at FrameWorks UK

When it comes to discussing complex issues around health, the words we use matter, and how an issue is framed can impact our understanding on how best to address it. This is especially relevant for emotive topics like the health of children, young people, and their families.

Communicating about childhood obesity:

In 2018, we partnered with social researchers at FrameWorks to investigate how the public perceive obesity and its causes. In our joint report ‘Changing the Childhood Obesity Conversation to Improve Children’s Health’, we found that the dominant narrative around childhood obesity is consistent with that of adults – that it’s about individual choices and personal responsibility.

We found there was little public knowledge of the evidence that highlights how our context has a significant impact on our health. This refers to where we live, our high streets, shops, and shared public spaces.

It was well known that a nutritious diet plays a key role in children’s well-being. However, there is less of a direct link in our minds of the inequality of the issue, and that access to nutritious food depends strongly on the context we grow up in.

The impact of COVID-19:

When COVID-19 hit the UK, our personal and collective health was discussed perhaps more widely than ever before. The pandemic has brought health inequalities front and centre. During this time, campaigning to improve children’s health had successes. This included the introduction of long called-for policies like banning junk food advertising before 9pm. But there is still more to do to make sure that all children, regardless of where they live, have access to healthy food and spaces to run and play.

In 2021, we worked with FrameWorks again to see if public thinking on children’s health had evolved over the course of the pandemic. Our newest report, ‘Communicating About Childhood Obesity at the Time of Covid’, found that we have collectively grown more aware of the unequal link between wealth and health in the UK. We’re also more aware of increased reporting connecting children’s health and access to food with a families’ income. However, there is still a persistent belief of obesity as a matter of personal responsibility.

We have collectively grown more aware of the unequal link between wealth and health in the UK. However there is less of a link in our minds about the inequality of the issue, and that access to nutritious food depends strongly on the context we grow up in.

How we can change the narrative:

The new report found that we still have some way to go in terms of changing the narrative on childhood obesity. However, it also gave clear advice on how communicators on children’s health can use language to change and challenge public perceptions.

Some key recommendations:

  • Leading all communications with children’s health as the main issue. Shift the conversation away from a problematic focus on body size and shape.
  • Avoid leading communications about health with COVID. Instead, make the issue about improving children’s health first, and follow with an explanation of how the pandemic has increased existing inequalities.
  • Appeal to the need to meet all children’s needs, no matter where they live, when discussing wealth and health inequalities. Link this to the idea of a brighter future for all children.
  • Use specific metaphors to foster understanding. Using a ‘stage’ metaphor can help to describe how junk food companies have exploited children’s increased screen time with ads to spotlight their products. Using a ‘river’ metaphor can aid understanding on how environments shape children’s health.
  • Consistently defining technical terms that the public may be unfamiliar with, like ‘food insecurity’. This is often misunderstood as having something to do with people’s personal feelings towards food. It is important to explain the term wherever it’s used and talk explicitly about children having a lack of regular access to enough nutritious food.

Key messengers:

Our new report also looks at who are the best messengers for communicating about children’s health. We found that young people are as among the most effective, authentic and credible voices on the issue.

This really resonated with us. It reinforced the idea that children and young people should play a major role in the discussion of the issues that affect them, have their voices heard, and help shape the future of the world they live in.

We still have some way to go in advancing public understanding on the factors that contribute to the health of children and young people. We’re now working with our own partners and prominent campaigners and communicators around issues of children’s health and access to nutritious food to bring about change.