PROVO — Disney's hit show "Hannah Montana" isn't just an entertaining series about a teen's secret life as a pop star, it's also a positive commentary on some of America's chunkier children.

A recently published study by Brigham Young University professors found that children's sitcoms are far less prone to perpetuate negative stereotypes surrounding overweight characters than are adult shows.

"When kids are watching these shows, particularly heavy kids ... they're seeing that these overweight characters are not being treated in a negative way," said Tom Robinson, BYU associate professor of communications. "I hope that that's what they're trying to tell these kids, 'If you're overweight, that's OK; you're still a quality person."'

The six-month study involved 19 shows from Nickelodeon, The Disney Channel and Discovery Kids, such as "Drake & Josh," "Sabrina the Teenage Witch," "Zoey 101," "Even Stevens," "Hannah Montana," "Lizzie McGuire" and "That's So Raven."

Both Robinson and co-author Mark Callister, also a BYU associate communications professor, said they expected teen shows to mirror adult shows — where heavier characters are surrounded by negative stereotypes — such as being lazy, unintelligent, unhappy or the butt of jokes.

To their surprise, it just didn't happen.

"I think the producers and directors recognize the wide and diverse weight audience," Robinson said. "They need to include all those characters. Certainly they don't want to ostracize, pick on, make one particular weight group feel out of place. I think they're more sensitive about that now than they used to be."

Actress Miley Cyrus, who portrays Hannah Montana on the Disney show of the same name, said Monday in an interview that she thinks it's important for people to be healthy, walk or ride a bike instead of drive when they can, and drink water instead of a soda when they can.

"But I also think, just be happy ... and comfortable in your skin. That's the most beautiful thing," Cyrus said.

The BYU professors' article, also co-authored by graduate student Tahlea Jankoski, was published mid-June in the international journal, Body Issue.

To conduct the study, researchers watched four episodes of each show for a total of 76 clips, then evaluated characters' weight and personalities.

To measure weight, the group matched characters with one of three pre-approved pictures: above average, average or below average weight.

Data show that 15 percent of the characters were above average weight. Forty-seven percent of characters were average weight and 38 percent below average weight.

The Disney Channel shows had the widest variety of body types with 21 percent overweight characters, 46 percent average weight, and 33 percent thin characters.

Requests for comment from the parent companies of Nickelodeon and the Disney Channel were not immediately returned.

The one lingering negative stereotype in children's sitcoms was a decreased number of friends or social networks for an overweight character.

Callister said they also noticed that African-American characters were more likely to be portrayed as above average weight than their Caucasian counterparts.

However, the study pointed out that the lack of African-American characters on television prevents a truly accurate comparison. Gender played no significant role in weight differences.

Robinson and Callister are now evaluating teen movies' portrayal of body image.

Yet, despite the positive strides being made by some television programs, researchers said much of the media focus, including adult television, is still on "thin" or "muscular."

"As (children) look on their video games, as they consume different teen magazines, as they watch other kinds of programming, they are still being exposed to an overwhelming amount of the thin ideal," Callister said. "I see (children's programming) as a nice counterbalance to some extent."


Contributing: James Davis

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