In the fight for kids’ at­ten­tion, parents don’t stand a chance

The Guardian (Charlottetown) - - OPINION - BY MONIQUE POTVIN KENT Dr. Monique Potvin Kent is an ex­pert ad­viser with Ev­i­denceNet­ and an as­sis­tant pro­fes­sor in the School of Epi­demi­ol­ogy and Pub­lic Health at the Uni­ver­sity of Ot­tawa.

Dear Parents,

I’m writ­ing you be­cause you may be in the dark about the amount of un­healthy food and bev­er­age mar­ket­ing your chil­dren and teens are view­ing.

This isn’t your fault. It’s our re­al­ity. We’ve let food and bev­er­age com­pa­nies have a huge in­flu­ence on our chil­dren.

Twenty-five years ago, a par­ent might be ex­pected to see and con­trol most if not all ad­ver­tis­ing their child was ex­posed to on network TV and at the gro­cery store. To­day, for even the most con­sci­en­tious parents, it’s im­pos­si­ble to mon­i­tor - or even to rec­og­nize - the im­mense amount of food and bev­er­age mar­ket­ing di­rected at kids.

They’re tar­geted by un­healthy food and bev­er­age ad­ver­tis­ing on tele­vi­sion, ra­dio, in print, on bill­boards, in video games and movies, through prod­uct place­ment, and through spon­sor­ship of events and teams. The ads fre­quently use celebrity en­dorse­ments, spokes-char­ac­ters and li­censed char­ac­ters to ap­peal fur­ther to chil­dren. Kids are also tar­geted where they gather, such as in are­nas and recre­ation cen­tres - even in schools and hos­pi­tals.

The sit­u­a­tion has got­ten worse.

New forms of dig­i­tal mar­ket­ing al­low chil­dren and teens to be tar­geted at a very low cost through food com­pany web­sites, ban­ner, pop-up and video ads on third-party web­sites, com­pany apps, push no­ti­fi­ca­tions from apps, within-app ads and SMS (text) ads. Food mar­ket­ing is also dis­guised as web­site con­tent and in­te­grated into posts by YouTube vlog­gers.

Most food and bev­er­age com­pa­nies also have a strong pres­ence on social me­dia to al­low them to in­ter­act with your child or teen. The use of ad­ver-games is com­mon - fun and ad­dic­tive video games with in­te­grated ad­ver­tis­ing that can keep kids ex­posed to ad­ver­tis­ing for hours with­out them (or their parents) even re­al­iz­ing it. Kids also be­come un­wit­ting mar­keters by for­ward­ing links to their friends.

These are not your grand­mother’s com­mer­cials.

Dig­i­tal mar­ket­ing is dif­fer­ent from tra­di­tional mar­ket­ing. It fre­quently al­lows your child to in­ter­act with the prod­uct, it can use be­havioural tar­get­ing (to track your child’s be­hav­iour and tar­get ads ac­cord­ingly), and geo­tar­get­ing (to tar­get ads to your child’s lo­ca­tion).

In con­trast to tele­vi­sion where the Broad­cast Code for Ad­ver­tis­ing to Chil­dren lim­its ad­ver­tis­ing to no more than four min­utes dur­ing a 30-minute chil­dren’s show, ex­po­sure to food and bev­er­age mar­ket­ing in dig­i­tal forms is lim­it­less.

Ear­lier this year, my re­search team and I set out to dis­cover the ex­tent of on­line food and bev­er­age mar­ket­ing to Cana­dian kids. We ex­pected big num­bers but the re­sults were shock­ing. Cana­dian chil­dren ages two to 11 viewed 25 mil­lion food and bev­er­age ads - over 90 per cent of them for un­healthy items - in a sin­gle year from their top 10 vis­ited sites.

Food and bev­er­age mar­ket­ing works for the com­pa­nies - but not for our chil­dren.

Ev­i­dence is clear that obe­sity rates are in­flu­enced by the amount of food and bev­er­age mar­ket­ing to which kids are ex­posed. Obe­sity puts them at far greater risk for con­tin­ued obe­sity as adults and many health prob­lems that can shorten their lives, in­clud­ing heart dis­ease, stroke and di­a­betes.

The food and bev­er­age in­dus­try has a vol­un­tary sys­tem that’s sup­posed to en­sure that un­healthy food mar­ket­ing to chil­dren is lim­ited. But it doesn’t work. I’ve done sev­eral stud­ies eval­u­at­ing the in­flu­ence of sel­f­reg­u­la­tion of food mar­ket­ing and the re­sults show con­vinc­ingly that it has failed.

For­tu­nately, in Canada, we have a model that works. Que­bec has banned all com­mer­cial ad­ver­tis­ing to chil­dren 13 and un­der since 1980. It’s time the rest of Canada fol­lowed suit. We should also ex­pand the re­stric­tion to teenagers and en­sure leg­is­la­tion cov­ers the full scope of mar­ket­ing.

Parents want to raise healthy chil­dren but they need help to do so. Food and bev­er­age mar­ket­ing re­stric­tions at the fed­eral level would pro­vide such sup­port. There’s am­ple ev­i­dence to back up the need for such re­stric­tions.

Let’s give Cana­dian parents the help­ing hand they need to en­sure their chil­dren eat well and stay in good health.

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