How digital media markets unhealthy foods to children

Row of children sat using various electronic devices

Dr Mimi Tatlow-GoldenDr Mimi Tatlow-Golden is a lecturer in Developmental Psychology and Childhood Studies at The Open University (UK).

Children’s food preferences, what foods they ask for, and how much they eat, are all affected by advertising and promotion of unhealthy foods and drinks – highly processed items that have little or no nutritional value. This is shown by research evidence that the World Health Organization has declared “unequivocal”.

This advertising and promotion is a concern given the very high worldwide rates of children who are overweight or obese. In the UK, for example, nearly a third of children between the age of two and 15 years are overweight or obese. Obesity has been linked to 11 types of cancer, heart disease and type 2 diabetes. High blood pressure and type 2 diabetes used to only affect adults, but are now increasingly seen in children and young people.

Action is needed

To address this global health challenge, United Nations agencies such as the World Health Organization have called for urgent measures, including effective limits on food marketing to children and young people. However, few countries have policies limiting marketing of unhealthy food and drinks and even fewer have any limits at all on marketing to children in the digital sphere.

Targeted advertising in social media

In the new digital media landscape, children and young people are more vulnerable than they are to television advertising effects. This comes as a surprise to many parents who are not aware of the extent and nature of advertising in social media, and the ways it is spread through children’s communities, because of the way digital media encourages children to engage with their advertising, and extracts data from them.

When children use digital media, they largely use sites aimed at mixed age audiences including social media platforms such as Instagram and Facebook. These platforms collect extensive personal data from their users to deliver targeted behavioural advertising. This is their primary business model. Accessing extensive data within social media, on each and every one of us, enables brands wishing to sell unhealthy items to target audiences with precision. They target those who are most interested in unhealthy items and therefore most vulnerable to its advertising effects. There is little, if any, regulation to protect children and young people, as the audiences on these platforms are predominantly adults. In this way, children’s phones have become a gateway for junk food marketers.

The algorithms used by the major platforms – the way they select the ads and other content that their users see – give preference to ads that are less overt, and allow brands to sell ads to those users who look at their content for longer, thus bypassing any media literacy children might have and amplifying the power of practices in traditional media.

Digital marketing effect

Digital marketing for unhealthy food and drinks presents children with emotional, entertaining experiences and encourages them to share these with their friends. Brands, marketers and social media companies report that digital marketing (including for unhealthy food and drinks) amplifies the advertising seen in traditional media. Digital marketing achieves greater ad attention and recall, greater brand awareness and more positive brand attitudes, greater intent to purchase and higher product sales.

For children and young people vulnerable to its effects, unhealthy food marketing in digital media presents a heightened risk to their health and wellbeing, and therefore policymakers must prioritise regulations setting limits on the digital marketing of unhealthy food and drinks to children.

For examples of policies that restrict the advertising and promotion of unhealthy food, see our NOURISHING policy database – a free online tool with examples of implemented policies from around the world.