Teens bombarded with junk food ads

28th July 2021 | Eativity editors

For every hour that a teen spends online on their phone, they view more than 17 food and drink promotions, a figure almost nine times higher than their exposure to marketing via television advertising, according to new research from the University of Wollongong.

Over a week, teenagers were exposed to an average of 168 online food and drink promotions, contrasted with an average of 19 a week when watching TV. Associate Professor Bridget Kelly, lead researcher on the study, says adolescents are being exposed to extensive marketing for unhealthy foods while using social media, with food and drink producers promoting brands seemingly endorsed by other teens or online groups.

“When food and drinks are marketed on social media via social media communities or online influencers, it comes with the assumption that the products are endorsed by peers and online communities,” she says. “Brands tap into these pages’ networks of online followers and social cache, heightening the marketing effects. This marketing normalises unhealthy foods, creates positive brand images and encourages overconsumption.”

The study found that the food and drinks marketed online are almost exclusively high in salt, fat and sugar. The rate of promotions for unhealthy foods and beverages was 50 times higher than the rate of promotions for healthier products.

Kelly, who’s based at UOW’s School of Health and Society, says that government policy has failed to keep pace with rapid developments in the digital world. The immense use of data analytics means advertisers are now able to target children using personal data in a way that’s far more insidious than traditional advertising. In particular, Instagram, Facebook and Snapchat had the highest rates of food marketing, which Kelly says presents an opportunity for those platforms to self-regulate to protect children from unhealthy promotions.

“The digital world is outstripping current legislation and policy to protect young people from inappropriate marketing,” she continues. “Policies needs to protect children from unhealthy food marketing through paid advertising and paid content in posts generated through online communities, influencers and celebrities.”