If you’re a parent, you’ve likely tried some reverse psychology on your kids, with results both good and bad. Two studies suggest that teens will choose healthier fare when they think it’s a rebellious act, or being cool, or because they’re inspired by social causes.
We associate teens with mostly unhealthy eating habits – fast food, sugary beverages, energy drinks, and high fat, sugary, and salty snacks – and those food choices are likely helping to fuel rates of teen obesity. Teens need to assert their independence, explore limits, take risks and break rules. They also want to rebel against their parents, even as they turn to them for support and protection. Teens are also driven by how their actions appear. Most of them hate to appear lame and that can guide their behaviors to a large extent. So trying to appeal to a teen to eat healthy “because it’s good for you,” will fall very flat, and could even push them in the other direction. Allowing them to feel rebellious, however, could be a slam dunk if it inspires healthier habits.
The premise of this research was to try and appeal to the rebelliousness and to the focus many teens have on social issues, to get them motivated to adopt healthier eating habits. The researchers concluded that this type of reverse psychology had legs. Making a healthy eater a rebel is using true teen reverse psychology.
Researchers divided a total of 536 students ages 13 to 15 into three:
- Group one received information promoting healthy eating based on its long term health benefits.
- Group two received information on how junk food is addictive thanks to ingredients and processing, and how junk food can be labeled with alluring ads, especially targeting young kids from poor backgrounds.
- Group three received no information at all, or information unrelated to healthy or unhealthy eating.
All the students were asked to write an essay on how they might now engage with foods that fall in certain categories, based on the information they each received. The next day, their teachers handed out snacks in their classrooms, describing them as a reward for efforts made so far during the school year. The students were allowed to choose the contents themselves.
Of the teens in group two who were given the negative information regarding junk food and junk food ads, 43 percent chose “only unhealthy snacks,” compared to 54 percent of the group who had received no information. Group two teens also were less likely to choose sugary beverages (by nine percent) compared to group three.
The group two students who learned about the manipulations that exist in the fast food and junk food industries were also found more likely to agree with or make statements about autonomy, social status, and social justice, such as, “when I eat healthy, I am making the world a better place.” Even days later, they were more likely to feel anger when they saw ads for sugary drinks, and more likely to avoid these choices.
The findings were published in the September 2016 issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Shortly thereafter in Great Britain, where rates of childhood and teen obesity are similar to that of the United States, a UK National Diet and Nutrition Surveyfound that among 11- to 18-year-olds, only eight percent were consuming five portions of fruit or vegetables daily, and many or most were consuming more than triple the recommended daily amount of sugar.
As parents struggle to meaningfully address teen obesity, this research might offer a simple, inexpensive, and constructive way to affect their eating habits.
Parents, you should try to spark rebellion in your own household by discussing how advertisers manipulate young consumers, or how food choices impact the environment, and kids may feel “more cool” when choosing healthier food fare. And if your child comes home inspired by classroom lessons to eat healthier or exercise more, avoid discouraging them by telling them how expensive healthier food is, or how much more work preparing healthy food is for you. If reverse psychology seems to be working, go for it – let your teen be a rebel with a healthy cause!
As a quick separate note, you might also take advantage of vanity issues to inspire teens to make healthier food choices. A separate study suggests that teens may choose to eat more fruits and vegetables when reminded that these food choices will improve their appearance and attitude (emotional well-being). Text messages containing these types of reminders were sent to students with positive results.
As parents, we’ve got to think like teens when appealing to teenagers. So use “rebellion, social causes, and vanity” to inspire them to choose healthier fare.
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Amy Hendel, also known as The HealthGal, is a Physician Assistant, nutritionist and fitness expert.As a health media personality, she's been reporting and blogging on lifestyle issues and health news for over 20 years. Author of The 4 Habits of Healthy Families, her website offers daily health reports, links to her blogs, and a library of lifestyle video segments