Social media platforms under fire for pushing junk food to our kids

Media release
17 June 2020

Popular social media platforms let junk food advertisers target children and teenagers without restriction, new Deakin research shows.

The study out of Deakin's Global Obesity Centre in the Institute for Health Transformation focused on the largest global social media platforms, such as Facebook and Instagram, and examined advertising policies related to food and drinks, as well as other areas impacting public health including tobacco, alcohol and gambling.

The researchers found that despite international recommendations to limit children's exposure to junk food marketing, none of the most widely used social media platforms had comprehensive restrictions on the advertising of unhealthy foods.

Lead researcher, Associate Professor Gary Sacks, a Heart Foundation Future Leader Fellow, said there was an urgent need for greater action to restrict marketing of unhealthy food on social media.

"Almost 9 in 10 Australian teenagers are active on social media, where they're heavily targeted by junk food companies. In one recent study, over half of Australian kids active on Facebook had 'liked' a fast food brand," Associate Professor Sacks said.

"We also know that teenagers using social media engage with posts advertising junk food more often than they engage with posts for healthy food. What's more, when kids are exposed to unhealthy food marketing on social media, it increases the chance that they’ll immediately consume that product.

"Popular children's platform, YouTube Kids, does prohibit junk food marketing on its platform but children can still be exposed to unhealthy food brands through product placement and promotional videos on the platform."

Associate Professor Sacks said many popular social media platforms were willing to take a stand against alcohol, tobacco, gambling, and weight loss ads.

"The policies of multiple social media platforms relating to weight loss products are even more restrictive than most government policies," Associate Professor Sacks said.

"Instagram and Facebook recently implemented a ban on advertising of diet and weight loss products as well as cosmetic procedures to users below 18 years old.

“Other recent actions taken by social media platforms like those to combat fake news show that they recognise the important role they can play as corporate citizens.

"This study highlights the opportunity for major social media platforms to reduce the exposure of children to marketing of unhealthy foods."

In line with global public health recommendations, Associate Professor Sacks said social media platforms should adopt junk food advertising restrictions that:

  1. apply to all children and adolescents under 18
  2. cover a wide range of marketing techniques (e.g., advertising, child-directed content, product placement)
  3. Use a comprehensive definition of unhealthy foods and drinks, based on government-endorsed criteria.

The recently published study is available to read here.

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