Although research suggests that children’s eating habits are formed even before they enter the classroom – children as young as two may already have dietary preferences based on their parents’ food choices – health education can play a vital role in helping establish lifelong healthy patterns early.
Research shows that health education has a positive impact on health behaviors as well as academic achievement, and that the most effective means of improving health literacy is ensuring that health education is included in curriculum at all levels of education.
U.S. schools educate 54 million students daily, and can provide not only an outlet to promote healthy behaviors for children and adolescents, but a place for them to engage in these behaviors, including eating healthy and participating in physical activity.
The U.S. is in great need of an improvement in health literacy. In a 2007 UNICEF study, our country ranked last out of 21 industrialized countries in overall child health and safety. Approximately one in five of our high school students are smokers, 80 percent of students do not eat the recommended five servings of vegetables and fruits per day, and more than 830,000 adolescents become pregnant each year. Approximately two thirds of the American population is estimated to be overweight or obese.
Furthermore, our understandings of health and health-related behaviors are often highly influenced by the media and media images – which can lead to inaccurate assumptions and negative health behaviors and attitudes.
The importance of media literacy as applies to health education
Self-esteem patterns also develop in early childhood, although they fluctuate as kids gain new experiences and perceptions. Because media messages can influence unhealthy behaviors, especially in adolescents, a comprehensive health education program must include not only health knowledge, but media literacy as it relates to psychological and physical health behaviors as well.
“To a large degree, our images of how to be comes from the media. They are [a] crucial shaper of the young lives we are striving to direct,” writes resource teacher Neil Andersen, editor of Mediacy, the Association for Media Literacy newsletter.
Media awareness, Andersen explains, can help teach students techniques to counter marketing programs that prey on their insecurities to promote negative behavior, can explode stereotypes and misconceptions, can facilitate positive attitudes and can help students learn how to absorb and question media-conveyed information.