Kids See Far Too Many Junk Food Ads on the Internet

CC BY 2.0. Kevin R. Colvin

Unlike TV, the online world has no limits when it comes to advertising junk food to children and teens. This needs to change.

There was a time when a large TV in the living room was a family’s main source of entertainment. But then, along came laptops, tablets, and smartphones, and suddenly entertainment was available 24/7, in every room in the house, in the car, in one’s pocket. Kids’ screen time skyrocketed to an estimated 8 hours daily – equivalent to a full work day – in a few short years.

The big problem with this, aside from the excessive screen time, is that kids are getting a steady dose of junk food advertising. Whereas television networks must conform to regulations regarding junk food advertising to children, roughly limited to five ads per hour, the online world has none of those restrictions.

A recent report from the Heart & Stroke Foundation of Canada found that children between the ages of 2 and 11 see more than 25 million ads annually, and that’s just on ten websites that were studied. Says Dr. Monique Potvin Kent, who led the research:

“There are many ads on TV directed at kids and it’s even higher for teens, but there are only so many spots available, there is a limit. On the Internet there are absolutely no limits.”

Potvin Kent found that the most popular products advertised are Kellogg’s Pop Tarts, Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes, McDonald’s Happy Meal, Kraft Lunchables and Red Bull Energy Drink. Once these brands become familiar, kids want them when they recognize them in stores.

Geoff Craig, chief marketing and communications officer for Heart & Stroke, says in the report:

“Marketing works. The ‘nag factor’ does not come out of nowhere—it is driven by marketing messages. Marketers know that 90 percent of food and beverage purchases are driven by kids. This is not a fair fight for parents; winning the battle for harmony often means losing the battle for health.”

That 90 percent figure is shocking, but as any parent knows, that nag factor can be overwhelming, especially if you’re not prepared for it, inconsistent with your response, or tired. (And, seriously, what parent isn’t?)

The problem of kids driving food choices could stem, too, from the fact that many of today’s parents grew up on a somewhat junky diet in the ‘70s and ‘80s, which may bias their own tastes toward processed foods – the very problem we want to avoid with the next generation. Now, it’s difficult for them to say ‘no’ when their kids beg. After all, Canadians are clearly not making the best food choices if 60 percent of the adult population and 26 percent of kids are obese or overweight.

boys eating fast food

Phalinn Ooi/CC BY 2.0

Crackdowns on advertising have been linked to reductions in weight. André Picard writes in the Globe and Mail:

“Quebec has banned advertising of fast food since 1980, and that law is credited with lower rates of obesity and fast-food consumption in the province. Other countries, such as Sweden, Finland and Greece, have strict controls on marketing to kids, and both France and Britain have proposed legislation in the works.”

There is a bill currently in Canadian parliament that would amend the Food and Drug Act, making it illegal for characters, either fictional or not, to endorse products, and ban all advertising of junk food to children on TV, online, in print, on labels and packaging.

It would be a smart move, and one that could save the government untold amounts of money in healthcare costs down the road, not to mention improve quality of life for a great number of citizens. As Picard points out, advertising is only one part of the desperate need to improve Canadians’ diets, but it’s a fairly easy one to address with regulations. Eliminate kids’ familiarity with these brands and they’ll no longer be so desirable.