URBANA, Ill. – Previous research has shown that viewing high amounts of media can negatively impact dietary habits, and these unhealthy habits are a driving force behind obesity and its associated health complications. Even though previous research has linked increased TV consumption with unhealthy eating habits, not much research has focused on the impact that media consumption may have on individuals from different cultures.
A study published recently in Child Development by University of Illinois researcher Gail Ferguson, an assistant professor in human development and family studies, explores whether globalization and the spread of U.S. media could be influencing behaviors and eating habits in developing regions.
Part of Ferguson’s work revolves around the concept of remote acculturation, or the way in which youth and families from around the world are internalizing American culture and how this affects their identities and behaviors. Ferguson points out, “If you start to think and act like people in another country, then maybe you’ll start to take on their health behaviors as well.”
Ferguson has since launched remote acculturation research in the Caribbean island of Jamaica, and over the past several years, has found that two out of three adolescents in urban areas of Jamaica identify only with traditional Jamaican culture. However, one in three adolescents identify with both Jamaican and American cultures—essentially “Americanized Jamaicans” as Ferguson calls them, or “Jahmerican” as some youngsters in one of her studies suggested.
With this in mind, Ferguson’s research team set out to determine the extent to which youth and families from developing regions are incorporating American culture into how they think, feel, and behave, and how this may be associated with their health. “We really wanted to know what this looks like for an individual,” says Ferguson. “Would feeling somewhat American be linked to watching more American cable TV, and would this bring along unhealthier eating habits?”
To explore this idea, Ferguson’s team focused on 330 randomly selected adolescents in Jamaica, ranging in age from 11 to 18, and their mothers. The participating families completed questionnaires to gain a sense of how much they identified with and enjoyed Jamaican culture, American culture, or a combination of the two; how much U.S. cable TV they watched every day; and what their eating habits were.
What they found is that adopting a part-American identity was linked to watching more hours of U.S.-produced TV per day, which was then linked to eating more unhealthy foods. Ferguson and her team found that it was more likely that feeling American predicted watching American cable, rather than the other way around. For example, adolescents and mothers in Jamaica who felt more American tended to consume more processed foods, prepackaged meals, sodas, and American-style fast food (some of which are viewed as a status symbol), and the link between their American identification and their unhealthy eating was partially explained by their U.S. cable-viewing habits. Additionally, there was a stronger mother-daughter connection because mothers’ U.S. cable viewing was associated with their daughters’ unhealthy eating but not their sons’.
These results have health implications not just for Jamaica, but also for any developing region where youth and families are heavily exposed to American media and are rapidly becoming remotely acculturated. Ferguson points out that any developing regions could experience the effects of this type of acculturation because both American media and food are easily exportable.
But, she stresses, people shouldn’t seek to avoid other cultures, nor can they. “Globalization is like a current,” Ferguson points out. “You can’t stop it; there is no way to pull anyone out of it, but instead we want to teach people to swim, to hold their own, so that they are not swept away without realizing what is happening.”
Ferguson is taking these research findings and using them to help inform the development and evaluation of the JUS Media? Programme, a food-focused media literacy intervention for families in Jamaica targeting food advertising on U.S. cable that is jointly funded by the Christopher Family Foundation Food and Family Program and the National Institutes of Health. Through this project, Ferguson and other researchers are seeking to implement an effective global family health intervention program in developing regions, starting with Jamaica as a case study. By acknowledging remote acculturation and addressing U.S. media influences in their nutrition intervention, the project has the potential to make a substantial contribution to improving diet and decreasing risk for chronic disease in developing regions.
“Feel American, Watch American, Eat American? Remote Acculturation, TV, and Nutrition among Adolescent-Mother Dyads in Jamaica” is published in Child Development. Additional co-authors of the paper were Henna Muzaffar, visiting research coordinator in food science and human nutrition; Maria I. Iturbide, assistant professor in psychology at Humboldt State University; Hui Chu, assistant professor in psychology at Purdue University, Northwest; and Julie M. Meeks, deputy principal of the University of the West Indies Open Campus.