How Junk Food Ads Are Following Kids Online

The WHO is taking on marketers that target kids on digital media

Young boy looking at digital tablet
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How many tempting ads for things like yummy-looking foods and toys do you think kids are exposed to every time they’re on a digital device? We know that kids are often exposed to junk food ads while they watch TV shows, but since many kids are on their iPads, smartphones, and other electronic devices, marketers are following them there, too.

Today, children are using digital devices more than ever, both for educational and entertainment purposes; they often have to use the internet to do research for schoolwork, stream TV shows and movies, and constantly connect with friends social media sites. For years, many advertisers have been selling junk food targeted at kids by airing commercials during children’s TV shows.

Now, a growing number of marketers are zeroing in on kids who are on digital media to tempt them with foods that are high in sugar, fat, and salt.

What to Know About Marketing and Children

To address this growing problem, the World Health Organization (WHO) published a report in 2016 titled, "Tackling Food Marketing to Children in a Digital World: Trans-Disciplinary Perspectives." The report, which was produced by researchers at the University of Liverpool’s Institute of Psychology, Health and Society, in collaboration with The Open University, WHO, University of Melbourne and Flinders University, urges lawmakers to look at and address the increase in digital media ads that target kids, and call attention to ads that promote unhealthy junk foods.

The WHO report looked at trends in kids’ media use, marketing methods in digital media, and how much children are influenced by these ads in the WHO European region. Here’s some of what they concluded:

  • The lack of effective regulations for digital media in many countries allows children to be exposed to extremely persuasive ads on social media sites, advergames (games designed specifically to promote a brand or a product), and other cyberspaces where kids go to frequently.
  • The ads are very effective. According to the report, “There is unequivocal evidence that childhood obesity is influenced by marketing of foods and non-alcoholic beverages high in saturated fat, salt and/or free sugars (HFSS), and a core recommendation of the WHO Commission on Ending Childhood Obesity is to reduce children’s exposure to all such marketing.” There is consistent, solid evidence that food marketing influences kids’ food preferences and choices, and has a significant impact on their diet; junk food ads play a major role in increasing the risk of a child becoming obese.
  • The digital media ads enhance messages kids see elsewhere, such as on TV or in print advertisements. According to the WHO report, brands and marketers report that digital marketing amplifies the advertising in traditional media and strengthen the message. Kids pay more attention, are more aware of the brands, remember the message, and have more positive attitudes about the brands, making it more likely that they’ll want these brands.
  • Kids are no match for these highly persuasive campaigns that are designed specifically to appeal to children. These ad campaigns are designed to engage children on an emotional level and are entertaining. Kids respond to these ads and are encouraged to share these experiences with friends.
  • Kids’ privacy is at risk. Marketers collect extensive personal data from internet users and use that data to send out personalized ads to audiences. There is little to no effective regulation to protect kids from this kind of targeted advertising. 

What Parents Can Do

Parents can help when it comes to shielding kids from powerful and influential ads. Here's how.

Teach kids how to be smart about advertising. This is an important skill that will serve your child now and for the rest of her life. Talk about how these ads were created—teams of people set out to research what would make kids want to buy the product and then made an ad that would make what they're selling appear irresistible—and that's why the product looks so good to kids.

Talk about nutrition, and explain that foods high in fat, salt, and sugar raise people's risk for serious health problems like diabetes, heart disease, and obesity.

Go shopping together and eat together. Make healthy eating habits a part of your child's life by going shopping with him and teaching him to read nutrition labels. And be sure to eat dinner together regularly, which can not only benefit your child's health but has been linked to stronger mental and emotional development in kids and even better grades.

Reduce your child's screen time. Your child won't be exposed to as many digital media ads if she's away from the screen. Encourage non-screen activities like reading and playing board games or having fun outdoors.

See what your child sees. While it isn't possible for busy parents to look over their kids' shoulder all the time, do try to peek at what they're viewing when you can. Even if your child is streaming a kid show you approved of on the iPad or playing a game you okayed, there might be ads that pop up and entice your child to buy that unhealthy drink or snack. That's one way many advertisers get away with this kind of marketing to kids—parents often don't see what their kids are seeing and underestimate the size of the problem.

2 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. World Health Organization. Tackling food marketing to children in a digital world: trans-disciplinary perspectives. 2016.

  2. National Institutes of Health. How dietary factors influence disease risk. 2017.

By Katherine Lee
Katherine Lee is a parenting writer and a former editor at Parenting and Working Mother magazines.