• Melissa Genee, RD

The Effect of Food Marketing on Children

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Food marketing is everywhere. And it’s powerful. Food marketing is particularly effective for our children who are very vulnerable to marketing techniques. It is no surprise that food companies use kid friendly cartoon characters and superheroes on food products and in commercials - these are strategic techniques used by companies to appeal specifically to our children. Children not only see food advertising on television at home but also at schools, sports arenas, libraries, shopping centres, and on computers, cell phones and tablets. Unfortunately, 90% of food marketing is focused on sugary breakfast cereals, soft drinks, salty snacks, candy and fast food - i.e. the foods that many parents try to limit.

Food marketing has a direct impact on children’s food preferences, behaviours and health. Research shows that children are easily swayed to choose foods they see advertised, which contributes to a diet high in sodium, sugar and unhealthy fats. The Institute of Medicine released an extensive report that concluded that “food and beverage marketing practices geared towards children are out of balance with healthful diets, and contribute to an environment that puts their health at risk.” Beyond that, millions of dollars are spent each year trying to convince our impressionable children they want (and need) these unhealthy food and beverage products. And it works. As a parent, it can seem difficult to compete with food marketing and advertisements. But it’s not impossible.

So what can you do as a parent to help limit the effects of food marketing?

Reduce Screen Time/Limits on Screen Time

Children of all ages are spending more and more time in front of screens including television, tablets, phones and gaming consoles. Research shows that children are exposed to four to six food advertisements each hour they watch television (and that’s just on television). A recent study commissioned by the Heart & Stroke Foundation estimated that within a single year, children aged two to eleven view more than 25 million food and drink ads on their favourite websites. Twenty five million!

Setting limits on screen time can help reduce unwanted food advertising as well as build healthy habits for the future. Health Canada recommends that children aged 2-5 years have 1 hour or less of screen time per day. It is also recommended to keep electronic devices out of children’s rooms and move them into common areas - this will help you control how and when your child uses screen time. Use this tool to help set up a media plan for you family.

Watch Programming without Advertisements

When you are enjoying screen time as a family, choose to watch family-friendly programming that does not show advertisements or commercials. Consider recording shows so you can fast-forward through commercials. Another option is to watch DVDs or utilize online subscription services that do not promote advertisements.

Start the Conversation

Educate your children about marketing and the effects of marketing strategies. Explain to your children how marketers try to appeal to them when they use super heros and celebrities to market their favourite candy or fast food.

Perhaps a similar scenario has happened to you: you’re in the cereal aisle and your child begs and pleads for their favourite sugary cereal. Your child continues to nag you until you finally give in to avoid any conflict. This is called “pester power” or the “nag factor” and marketers want this to happen. Next time, explain why you don’t want to buy the product and teach your children how to choose foods without looking at advertisements - for example, by using the product food label. If we teach these skills to our children when they are young, they will be more likely to make healthy food choices when they are older.

Be a Good Role Model

Children are sponges and learn so much by simply observing people around them. Set a good example for them by choosing healthy foods and beverages. Reducing your use of electronic devices, especially when around your children, may help to reinforce the habits you are trying to encourage in your children.

Stand up Against Food Marketing

Use your power as a consumer to stand up against food marketing to children. If consumers demand that companies market healthier foods, they will have to listen. If we as consumers do not purchase these unhealthy products, they will have to change. Check out “Stop Marketing to Kids Coalition”, a Canadian based coalition led by the Heart & Stroke Foundation and the Childhood Obesity Foundation. This group aims to build awareness about the negative effects of food and beverage marketing to Canadian children and encourages you to take action.

For more information about the effects of food advertising on our children, check out the Heart & Stroke Foundation’s 2017 Report - The Kids Are Not Alright.

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