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A media-worthy smile needs an educated media

Growing up, most of my oral health habits were formed from what I saw on the big and small screen. As a child my family…

Growing up, most of my oral health habits were formed from what I saw on the big and small screen.

As a child my family constantly struggled to stay afloat financially, we couldn’t always afford a dentist. So, it was not until I was an adult that I realised I didn’t need to cover my entire toothbrush with paste to properly clean my teeth – nor did I need to rinse out all the toothpaste after brushing: I just needed to spit out the excess toothpaste.

Even the programmes that showed a brushing routine, portrayed it the wrong way.

One of my favourite movies as a teenager, “Bring it on”, had a two-minute scene with the actors brushing from left to right along their teeth and in a rushed way too. I recalled this scene whenever I brushed. But it was not until I got to dental school that I realised brushing correctly involves aiming my toothbrush at an angle of 45 degrees starting from the gum line, then all I have to do is brush gently in little circular motions, up and down my teeth for at least three minutes.

Now that I am a dentist, I’m just tempted to teach actors to brush their teeth correctly.

More than 70 per cent of Nigerians have a form of oral health disease, therefore conveying messages that improve good oral health hygiene is crucial, because the burden of oral health diseases can affect one’s ability to talk, eat healthy and get a job. It also increases public and private expenditures for dental care.

We can dramatically improve dental health in Nigeria – especially for people who do not have access to a dentist -but we must infuse good oral health habits into television, movies, and books.

The media is truly one of the most powerful instruments for communication and education, therefore, efforts should be made by media outlets to promote good oral health habits and do it the right way.

The mass media – television, music, movies, books, and the Internet – all play a vital role in influencing people’s behaviour and it will continue to do so. For example, a study in Kenya linked mass media to influencing positive health behaviours, when a favourable change in attitudes about safe sex was noticed after a mass media campaign was conducted.

In an urban community in Ile Ife, Nigeria, 362 of the 503 male and female indigenes had never been to a family planning clinic yet got their family planning practices from the radio.

We need to meet people where they are. As of 2015, 70 per cent of the households in the world have at least one TV set. It is obvious people who don’t have access to a dentist are using the media every day so we cannot talk about equitable access to oral health without the media.

A Nigerian report card on physical activity revealed that 90.7 per cent of the children and youths living in both rural and urban communities spend more than three hours on TV. This data shows how much potential the media has to influence the oral health lifestyle of the 110 million young Nigerian population, if only we invest in it.

The media can be positive educators, so it is important that dental professionals work with television stations and movie producers to bring about a change in oral health.  We can achieve this by creating a programme or workshop where actors, producers and media personnel are constantly trained on conveying accurate oral health messages through their movies, TV and radio shows.

Imagine what would happen if reality television shows like Big Brother Nigeria (Nigeria’s most popular TV show) brought in oral health educators who taught the contestants good oral health habits in front of a viewing audience of about 60 million people.

This would push oral health higher up the ladder.

When Hollywood started rolling out anti-smoking policies and campaigns, it led to a reduction in the number of adults smoking in the United States. We can do the same with oral health, seeing that Hollywood is known for always projecting actors with a perfect smile.

In addition to this, we can convey oral health messages using books. I have been to several libraries in Nigeria and have discovered that there are very few oral health books written to educate the public on how to take care of their mouths. The ones that exist are written for dental and medical professionals.

This prompted me to write ‘The girl who found her smile’ so that even young children can get accurate oral health messages and be our champions of change. Story books are safe ways for children to learn about their health and normalize experiences.

Using the book to teach oral health education in schools has made it easier to pass across the simple message on good oral health hygiene.

The media are called on to do a lot: deal with misinformation around COVID-19; reduce vaccine hesitancy; encourage safe sex… the list goes on. But showing positive images of oral health and helping correct bad habits is a win-win situation. Almost everyone has a toothbrush in their homes and it’s something everyone can relate to.

I am not saying that the media is the key to solving global oral health problems but is a step in the right direction. By combining both oral health knowledge and media, we can truly change the narratives around oral health habits and care

Regardless of our zip codes, everyone wants a media worthy smile, but we need an educated media to achieve that. If truly oral health equity is the end, then media is definitely a means to it.


Dr Adekemi Adeniyan  is a rural dentist and a 2021 Aspen Institute New Voices Fellow

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