Appetite for destruction: Food advertisements and your child

Pay attention to your child’s advertised diet — to all the foods they see advertised — and realise how unhealthy it is.

This is the recommendation from child psychologist Dr Mimi Tatlow-Golden, who led groundbreaking new research for the Irish Heart Foundation into hidden tactics used by junk food brands to target children online.

“Even with regulation, children are seeing more than 1,000 ads for unhealthy food on TV every year. Add to that unregulated digital advertising and they’ve got an overall very unhealthy advertised diet,” says Tatlow-Golden.

Her research found unhealthy food brands actively recruiting young Facebook users to spread their marketing — seeking likes, tags, comments, photos, and providing many links and hashtags.

“We know some parents are helping underage children sign up to social media. They’ve got family photos up there and they want their children looped into that. They don’t see potential problems.”

Tatlow-Golden says children are targeted by advertisers and unhealthy food brands. She cites adver-games, free apps made by companies that “really put their logos and [related] exciting messages across to children”.

In one game, the child drives a racing car, while a constant barrage of logos for an unhealthy confectionery flies in their direction.

“These adver-games are more intense than TV ads. Research shows they have a powerful effect on children’s attitudes to these foods. Even if they know logically it’s advertising, the game’s exciting. It makes them like the brand more.”

Tatlow-Golden points to research showing even very health-conscious adults react positively to food brands they used as a child, though these may be unhealthy. “Loyalties are set up in the first years of life and are very powerful. ”

If children are exposed too much to these messages, the advertiser is “getting in between” parents and children. “They’re putting themselves in the position of teaching children about food. This is not OK.

“Behaviour is largely driven by emotion, especially in children, and advertisers work on our emotions, so we can’t reasonably expect kids exposed to advertising to think rationally about sweets and fizzy drinks,” says Tatlow-Golden.

Parents need to get active, she says — get out in their communities and demand: ‘stop online grooming of our children for unhealthy eating’.

Top tips

  • Be aware of who’s advertising to your child on TV and online. Only let them play non-branded games.
  • Don’t allow child sign up to social media until they’re officially allowed — usually 13.
  • Install ad blockers but beware: they only act as temporary stop-gap. Kids learn how to disable them.
  • Take action, ask your TD for example, to get behind a call to social media platforms to immediately stop marketing unhealthy food to children.


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