WEDNESDAY, Aug. 17, 2011 (HealthDay News) -- If you're a parent, you've no doubt heard plaintive wails from your child as you traverse the treat-filled aisles of the grocery store.
And, you may have wondered, what makes even preschoolers yearn so desperately for the character-shaped marshmallow cereal? Or the prepackaged frozen meal in the brightly colored box?
New research suggests one culprit: those cutesy cartoon characters used to sell foods in TV ads.
"The purpose of this study was to explore the mechanism behind an interesting problem we face in the U.S. Since 3- to 5-year-old children aren't shopping, how do low-nutritional food and beverages get into the house? It's the 'nag factor.' It's how 3- to 5-year-olds get their parents to get them foods they might not otherwise want to purchase," explained the study's co-author, Dina Borzekowski, an associate professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore.
Results of the study are published in the August issue of the Journal of Children and Media.
A key reason for concern about young kids nagging their parents to get low-nutrition/high-calorie foods is that more and more of America's youngsters are overweight or obese. And, the highly processed, high-sugar foods and drinks that kids want are part of the reason there's an obesity epidemic.
To find out how tots are so good at getting these products into the house, the researchers interviewed 64 mothers of children between 3 and 5 years old. The mothers' average age was 38, and 56 percent of the women had a graduate degree. Most (88 percent) of the women were married, and 68 percent were employed. Household income was more than $60,000 a year for 93 percent of the mothers.
The average home in the study had two televisions, and three children in the study had a TV in their bedroom. According to the moms, kids spent about 39 minutes a day in front of an electronic screen, with TV using up the bulk of that time.
While overall media use didn't seem to influence the amount of nagging, the researchers found that a familiarity with certain commercial TV characters did. Moms cited three factors -- product packaging, cartoon characters and exposure to commercials -- as main contributors to nagging.
One (unnamed) mother of a 3-year-old girl told the researchers that she had noticed the growing influence of cartoon characters. "I definitely see it coming on in the last 4 months. She is aware of more characters. Doesn't know what the product is but she wants it. I'm shocked by her awareness . .. she is motivated by ads. She'll have full-on tantrums," she said.
Parents said they used a variety of techniques to deal with nagging -- some effective, some not at all. Strategies included giving in (more than 70 percent of mothers admitted to this one), yelling, ignoring, distracting, calm consistency, avoidance, limiting commercial exposure, rules and negotiation, allowing alternative items, and explanation.
Borzekowski said if you're the type who just can't say no to your child, the most effective strategy for you might be to have someone else watch your child while you go shopping. "If you don't bring your child into the cereal aisle, you won't have that same battle," she said.
Another strategy that appeared to be effective was setting up rules and negotiations ahead of time -- for example, allowing your children only one small item that they really want per trip.
"Trying to keep them out of the reach of marketers by limiting commercial TV can help, but there's a lot of pressure to watch what other kids are watching," said Borzekowski.
"One of the most fundamental tenets of child behavior management is consistency," said Rahil Briggs, director of the Healthy Steps Program at Montefiore Medical Center in New York City.
"Pretend that you and your child are walking down the street, and everything your child wants is on the other side of the fence. Your child is going to push on every board to see if one gives. If one of those boards is loose, you just bought yourself six more months of the child pushing on the fence. And, some children are very motivated," she said.
If you give in at the grocery store after having repeatedly said no, this "reinforces some very unfortunate behavior, and your child will do this in every setting, not just at the store," explained Briggs.
She recommends, "offering a choice in the absence of real choice. If Johnny wants the character cereal, but can't have that, offer him a choice between two healthier cereals. This allows him to exercise his free will and choice, but within the parameters you've set."
"If you can stand firm and follow through and stay consistent, the amount your child nags will decrease for all but the single-most persistent child. Children are smart. They stop doing things that don't work, and they'll adapt their behavior," she said.
To learn more about healthy family media habits, visit the Nemours Foundation KidsHealth Web site.