Commentary: Brands need to stop advertising junk food to kids on social media

MELBOURNE: In Australia and around the world, junk food companies are targeting children on social media.

In our new study, we found most major social media platforms have restrictions on the advertising of tobacco, alcohol and gambling to children.

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But there are hardly any such restrictions in place around junk food.

Globally, weve seen persistent calls to protect children from exposure to the marketing of unhealthy food and drinks. Such calls recognise the harmful effects of junk food marketing on children.

While some governments have adopted legislation to restrict kids exposure to the marketing of unhealthy foods, these laws typically dont apply to social media.

Some food companies have voluntarily pledged to restrict their marketing of unhealthy foods to children. But most of these pledges are narrow in scope and full of loopholes that allow junk food marketing to proliferate.

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As a result, children are heavily exposed to unhealthy food marketing, including on TV, online and through outdoor advertising.

READ: Commentary: Overweight yet undernourished? The hidden effects of junk food consumption

READ: Commentary: Evidence obesity a risk factor for serious illness with coronavirus is mounting

JUNK FOOD MARKETING ON SOCIAL MEDIA

In Australia, a recent study found almost half of children aged 10 to 12, and almost 90 per cent of those aged 13-16, were active on social media.

Junk food brands target children on social media through direct advertising, sponsored posts, and by integrating their brand into engaging and entertaining content.

This includes establishing promotional relationships with online “influencers”, who then promote the brand as part of the content they post.

(Photo: Unsplash/Katka Pavlickova)

In one recent study, more than half of Australian kids who were active on Facebook had “liked” a fast food brand, which subscribes them to its content. A similar proportion of kids had “liked” a soft drink brand.

Another study showed teenagers engaged with posts advertising junk food more often than they engaged with posts promoting healthy food.

Theres also evidence that when kids are exposed to unhealthy food marketing on social media, it increases the chance theyll consume the promoted product over an alternative brand of the same type of snack.

READ: Commentary: Our coronavirus diets and whats behind the urge to eat like kids

ADVERTISING POLICIES

In our study, we focused on the 16 largest social media platforms globally.

These included platforms popular with children, such as Instagram, TikTok, YouTube, Snapchat and Facebook. We examined each platforms advertising policies related to food and drinks.

We found none of the social media platforms have comprehensive restrictions on the advertising of unhealthy foods to children.

YouTube Kids, a platform popular with children under 13, does ban direct junk food marketing. But media reports have shown children could still be exposed to junk food brands through product placement and promotional videos on the platform.

READ: Commentary: Mandatory nutrition labels? The bitter truths about our sugar problem

We also looked at each platforms advertising policies related to other areas affecting public health. We found most of the social media platforms were prepared to take a stand against tobacco, alcohol and gambling ads targeting kids.

In many cases, their policies in these areas are aligned with government regulations. But in some cases they go further.

Facebook and Instagram also recently implemented a ban on advertising diet and weight-loss products as well as cosmetic procedures to users under 18. These policies are substantially more restrictive than most government policies.

Notably, current social media advertising policies dont completely eliminate childrens exposure to ads in these areas. For example, children still report seeing gambling ads on social media.

(Photo: CNA)

Although these policies need to be more comprehensive, they do signal social media platforms willingness to take action to protect children from the advertising of unhealthy products.

TAKING CONCERTED ACTION

Social media platforms have demonstrated they recognise the important role they can play as corporate citizens. Theres now a real opportunity for them to take concerted action to reduce childrens exposure to junk food marketing.

In doing so, they canRead More – Source