Public Health Nutrition

Hot Topic – Nutrition for infants up to pre-school children Nutrition and health

Parents’ misperceptions of social norms for pre-school children's snacking behaviour

Phillippa Lallya1, Lucy Cookea1, Laura McGowana1, Helen Crokera1, Naomi Bartlea1 and Jane Wardlea1 c1

a1 Health Behaviour Research Centre, Department of Epidemiology and Public Health, University College London, Gower Street, London WC1E 6BT, UK


Objective Misperception of social norms may result in normalising unhealthy behaviours. The present study tested the hypothesis that parents overestimate both the frequency of unhealthy snacking in pre-school children other than their own (descriptive norms) and its acceptability to other parents (injunctive norms).

Design A cross-sectional, self-report community survey. Questions assessed the frequency with which respondents’ own child ate unhealthy snacks and their beliefs about the appropriate frequency for children to snack. Perceived descriptive norms were assessed by asking parents to estimate how often other 2–4 year-old children in their area ate snacks. Perceived injunctive norms were assessed by asking them about other parents’ beliefs regarding the appropriate frequency for snacks. Misperceptions were assessed from (i) the difference between the prevalence of daily snacking and parents’ perceived prevalence and (ii) the difference between acceptability of daily snacking and parents’ beliefs about its acceptability to others.

Setting Pre-schools and children's centres in one borough of London, UK.

Subjects Parents (n 432) of children age 2–4 years.

Results On average, parents believed that more than half of ‘other’ children had snacks at least daily, while prevalence data indicated this occurred in only 10 % of families. The same discrepancy was observed for perceived injunctive norms: parents overestimated other parents’ acceptance of frequent snacking, with two-thirds of parents having a self v. others discrepancy.

Conclusions Misperceptions were identified for descriptive and injunctive norms for children's snacking. Accurate information could create less permissive norms and motivate parents to limit their child's intake of unhealthy snacks.

(Received June 06 2011)

(Accepted January 12 2012)

(Online publication March 14 2012)


c1 Corresponding author: Email