The power of pestering

01 March 2019 | Policy

Clare Collins is a Professor in Nutrition and Dietetics in the Faculty of Health and Medicine at the University of Newcastle, Australia.

Two words strike dread in the heart of every parent who has tried to negotiate a supermarket with children: pester power! Visualise this scene. It regularly plays out in grocery stores around the world:

“Can we get this?”

“No!”

 “Can we get this?”

“No!”

“Can we get this?”

“No, No–No-No, No! … … … Yes.”

What is pester power?

Pester power describes the wrestle between child requests for specific foods and drinks, usually those that are unhealthy and highly advertised, and parental attempts to resist giving in to child requests. Winning the tussle depends on a child’s persistence, including how loudly they make their requests and whether a tantrum ensues, versus the degree of parental battle weariness, or sometimes embarrassment, in the face of any tantrums. While the child commonly wins, parents can score points via a negotiated purchase, without having to buy everything in sight.

How common is it?

Intercept interviews with 158 parents in Australian supermarkets identified that 73 per cent of parents reported food requests from their children while shopping. The majority of parents (70 per cent) reported giving in to these requests and buying at least one of the requested items.

Interestingly, 88 per cent of the foods parents were pestered for were unhealthy foods. The most requested items were chocolate and sweets (40 per cent), followed by cakes and biscuits (12 per cent). This highlights a key problem in that pester power rarely occurs over requests for healthy food.

Once unhealthy food items are purchased, it is hardly surprising that greater home availability of these unhealthy items is associated with higher child intakes of snacks.

What prompts pester power?

In a systematic review of television viewing and dietary intakes of children, the more television watched, the greater the child’s intake of snacks, sweets, pizza, fried foods and sugar-sweetened beverages, and the lower their intake of fruit and vegetables.

This data provides evidence to support immediate policy action targeting restrictions on food advertising to children, in order to try to reduce their chronic exposure to huge amounts of advertising across the vast range of unhealthy foods and drinks that they currently face.

Does it matter?

In a two-year follow-up study of over 13,000 parents and children across eight European countries, most parents (63 per cent) reported giving in to pester power. Of concern was that among the 7,800 children who were followed for two years, those who often asked for items seen on television at baseline were 30 per cent more likely to become overweight during the two-year follow-up, while those who never asked were 30 per cent less likely to.

Supermarkets can contain a lot of unhealthy foods

A survey of 170 supermarkets across eight high-income countries evaluated how much of the supermarket area was dedicated to displays of potato crisps, chocolate, sweets or candy, and sugar-sweetened soft drinks. In all countries, large areas of the supermarkets displayed unhealthy food and beverages. When the areas were ranked by country, the aisle length dedicated to displaying crisps, chocolate and sweets was the greatest in the UK, while soft drinks had the biggest aisle length in Australia.

What can parents do about pester power?

  • Avoid taking children food shopping. If you have to, write a grocery list and go after a meal, when they are least likely to be hungry, and avoid entering the most densely populated junk food aisles.
  • Educate children about which foods are unhealthy. Pre-negotiate purchases of unhealthy, treat items and write the agreed purchase on the grocery list.
  • Have rules that set limits on junk food intakes for children aged seven years and over. For those under seven, praise them for family decisions to not buy it.
  • Educate children about the aim of food advertising and how it promotes sales of junk food rather than healthy food.
  • Learn to read food labels so you can judge which items might be the healthiest alternatives.
  • Use win-win negotiation. For example, say “Would you like to buy this one today or that one?” You can practise this with healthy food, also. For example, ask “Would you like strawberries or a banana?”
  • Identify something to save up for, with money not spent on pester-powered foods, and put that money into a piggy bank until you reach the target.
  • Visit a growers’ or farmers’ market and compare the food advertising with what is seen in supermarkets and the media.

You can find out more about Prof Clare Collins’ research here and read our policy report about front-of-pack food labels.

Prof Clare Collins | 01 March 2019

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