Amy Smullen, Policy Officer at the British Heart Foundation, writes about childhood obesity and media responsibility.
Children love the media in all its guises. Just try separating them from their TV, or their computer, their iPad, or their phone and you’ll soon see just how hard it is to tear them away. But what are they really watching and what impact does it have on them?
On average children in the UK spend 34 hours on TV, internet and radio every week. Now more children own a smartphone than ever before and 91% of children have access to the internet at home. Double exposure is also increasing with all of us, not just kids, guilty of sitting watching the TV whilst on our phone or surfing the internet.
But do we need to be concerned with what the kids are really watching? What about the stuff in between the programmes? And what about those noisy games on their phone or iPad that keep them so entertained, are they just harmless entertainment?
In reality we know that the programmes that our children see are littered with advertisements for food and drink products that are high in fat, salt and sugar (HFSS products). Similarly, on closer inspection some of the online games, known as ‘advergames’, can be veiled adverts for HFSS products.
Since 2008, under the UK Broadcast Committee of Advertising Practice (BCAP code) regulation, HFSS adverts during and around ‘children’s programming’ are banned. This has gone some way to reduce the amount of HFSS adverts our children see.
However, there is a major loophole. Marketers are allowed free rein during some of the most popular TV programmes watched by children which fall into ‘family’ programming, such as Britain’s Got Talent, the X-Factor and The Simpsons. This is further compounded by the shift in children’s viewing habits with peak viewing now falling between 8-9pm, when ‘family’ programmes are more likely to be scheduled.
For the online sphere, the regulation is even weaker. The Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP code) states that ‘marketing communications should not condone or encourage poor nutritional habits or unhealthy lifestyle in children.’ Yet what constitutes ‘condoning or encouraging’ or ‘poor habits’ is left open to interpretation by the industry. This allows many companies to harness children’s keen use of social media to promote their brand via Facebook or Twitter, encouraging children to like or follow their pages. On the pages competitions for prizes, downloads for advergames, and promotional posts all themed around their products are advertised.
And what happens if a parent wants to complain about a particular advert or advergame? They absolutely can complain to the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) however the process is long and complex, placing the onus on the parents to know that they have a right to complain and the time to navigate the system. If the ASA do decide the advert breached the regulations, by this time the advert is likely to have run its course anyway and the advertiser will face no punishment for the breach.
So why should we care about these adverts? We’re all human after all and a healthy balanced diet can incorporate a wide range of foods, including some that are high in fat, salt and sugar.
The trouble is, children (and adults) are already eating too much saturated fat, salt and sugar which makes advertising of these products to children a concern for two main reasons.
First, children don’t understand what a harmless programme is and what persuasive advertising is. Even the industry regulator Ofcom state that ‘media literacy develops with age and is commonly related to children’s growing ability to understand the persuasive intent of advertising … it isn’t until after 11 or 12 years of age that children can articulate a critical understanding of advertising.’
Second, research conducted by the Food Standards Agency has shown that food promotion does influence children’s behaviour and consumption. Adverts also encourage general consumption, meaning that an advert for a specific chocolate bar won’t make you more likely to buy just that specific brand but any chocolate bar in general.
Banning these adverts isn’t about telling parents that they aren’t doing their job properly; this is recognising that parents’ jobs are hard enough without having to police the internet and television for their children. In fact, we found that 75% of parents felt the Government needed to do more to regulate how HFSS products are advertised to children, with 65% in favour of a 9pm watershed ban.
That’s why the British Heart Foundation, alongside the Children’s Food Campaign and ten other concerned organisations, is calling for a ban on all HFSS adverts before the 9pm watershed, which would capture the all-important 8-9pm peak slot. We want tighter regulations across online space and non-broadcasting spheres, in order to ensure our children are protected regardless of whether they are watching the TV or surfing the net. We also want to see a new independent regulatory watchdog established to regulate the industry. The current regulatory framework is funded by a voluntary levy on advertising spend, with codes being written by boards that include the marketing industry. We believe that this creates a conflict of interest between a company’s drive to make profits and their corporate social responsibility.
Advertising of HFSS products is not solely responsible for childhood obesity – many factors come into play in this complex issue. However, the fact remains that around 30 per cent of our children in the UK are now overweight or obese and, on average, our children are eating more saturated fat, sugar and salt than is recommended. This makes the next generation more likely to enter adulthood being overweight or obese and carrying unhealthy eating habits putting them at a higher risk of developing coronary heart disease later in life. Coronary heart disease is already the UK’s single biggest killer and we need to act now to protect our children.
Sign our petition here: http://extras.bhf.org.uk/junkfood/