If you watch television in the evening, chances are you’ll see a commercial for some type of unhealthy food or beverage product. Food and beverage companies pump some $2 billion into marketing to children each year. As a result, kids see more than ten food-related food ads every day. These ads aren’t confined to television anymore, either. Food marketing now happens via website banner ads, social media feeds, and “advergames.” As context, in 2012, some 6 billion fast-food ads appeared on Facebook alone.
There is still ongoing debate about the best way to deal with the issue from a policy standpoint. Studies show voluntary commitments by industry almost always fall short of their intended result. A January 2016 report issued by the World Health Organization’s Commission on Ending Childhood Obesity concludes there is “unequivocal evidence that the marketing of unhealthy foods and sugar-sweetened beverages is related to childhood obesity,” and suggests the need for some regulatory protections.
There is a clear role for government to protect the vulnerable. In the case of food marketing, that’s young children, particularly under the age of 12. Children under 12 often fail to understand the commercial interests behind things like sponsorship. Children also struggle to recognize food marketing online. For example, one study found 6 year olds only recognized 25% of website ads compared to television, and 8 year olds recognized 50%.
A recent study of unhealthy food advertising and consumption underscores this point. The first-of-its-kind systematic review analyzed 22 studies looking at the relationship between acute exposure to unhealthy food advertising and food consumption in adults and children.
What did they find?
“…acute exposure to experimental food advertising significantly increases subsequent food intake in children.”
Basically, the study found that food marketing influences eating behavior among children, but not adults. There are, of course, a variety of reasons why this could be the case. Either way, because of a child’s still-developing brain, they struggle to identify persuasive or deceptive intent, especially under the age of 5.
At the same time, however, I’ve written before about the young age at which children are introduced to technology (97% of children under 4 have used a mobile device). Now combine this with the fact that more food marketing takes place via the Internet and social media. You can see why there is cause for concern.
The last piece of all this is an area less understood, but getting a lot more attention. Information overload isn’t a new concept, but with our unfettered access to endless amounts of information at all hours of the day, the scope of the issue is uncharted territory. We also know it hugely impacts our ability to process information and increases stress.
So, here’s my question. If kids are consuming more information at younger ages, are they overloaded with information to a point where they undermine their own cognitive ability (especially later in the day) to decipher food marketing? Is it because of information overload that children and teens are susceptible to simple, yet deceiving, food ads, especially in the evenings and at night?