Social Media Are Like Kids in a Candy Store

Children are exposed to thousands of food ads per year on social media, most of them for unhealthy junk. Is there any way to stop it?

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What we see is what we eat.

There is a wealth of evidence showing that food marketing shapes our dietary behaviours and food preferences, what we buy and what we eat. For children in particular, seeing their favourite athlete crack open a bag of chips or spotting a can of soda on the set of the latest music video influences their food choices. All of this contributes to the growing obesity epidemic.

To make matters worse, this advertising is no longer constrained to TV and billboards. With kids spending more and more time online, the impact of food advertising on social media and online games is a growing concern.

To understand more about exposure to food advertising on social media, researchers from the University of Ottawa, with funding from the Heart and Stroke Foundation, studied 101 children aged 7 to 16 using their favourite social media apps (Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter and YouTube).

In just 10 minutes on these platforms, 72% of these kids were exposed to food marketing, and in almost all cases that food was high in fat, salt, or free sugars. Fast food topped the list of products advertised (44% of ads), followed by sugar-sweetened beverages (9%), with McDonald’s (15%) and Starbucks (11%) the most frequently seen brands.

With these same kids spending an average of 65 minutes on social media on weekdays, and 103 minutes on weekend days, researchers estimate they are exposed to social media food marketing 111 times a week, or 5,772 times a year, in addition to what they see elsewhere.

Interestingly, the researchers also looked at food marketing in 138 free online games, finding that only 9% featured food ads, low by comparison to social media platforms.

“Our research shows that kids are frequently exposed to food and beverage ads and most of the products are considered to be unhealthy,” says Monique Potvin Kent, an assistant professor at the University of Ottawa and author of the study. “This level of exposure may greatly influence children’s perception of a normal diet as well as their food preferences and the foods they actually consume.”

In that case, should we be limiting this type of advertising to children? In Canada (except for Quebec) we do, but it is voluntary and self-regulated. Unsurprisingly, this approach doesn’t work particularly well.

But it’s not all bad news. In September 2018, the Canadian Senate agreed to an amendment to the Food and Drugs Act (Bill S-228) to ban advertising of ‘unhealthy’ foods and drinks directed at children under 17.

The bill is still going through the legislative process, and although it is a positive step forward it is just one component of helping our kids live healthy and active lives as they continue to spend more and more time online.

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Amy Noise is a science communicator who is fascinated by how and why the world works. Always learning, she is passionate about science and sharing it with the world to improve and protect our health, society and environment. Amy earned her BSc (biology and science communication) at the University of Manchester, and MSc (nutrition science and policy) at King’s College London, UK. She tweets sporadically @any_noise