Online channels with saturation levels of junk food marketing are the biggest influencers of Irish teenagers’ food choices, a new study shows.
As the Irish Heart Foundation launched a hard-hitting campaign to confront the deluge of unhealthy food ads, 57% of teens say online media is the most influential factor dictating their food preferences.
The Empathy Research study for the charity also found that over a third (35%) claim they consume junk food after seeing them.
“Children are being bombarded with junk food marketing and this research shows it is strongly impacting their food choices,” said Chris Macey, the Irish Heart Foundation’s Director of Advocacy.
“It is now at saturation level, particularly through online marketing behind parents’ backs, manipulating children’s food choices and thereby fuelling an obesity crisis threatening their health.
“Meanwhile, the Government stands by and allows voluntary regulation of online marketing.”
Launching its ‘Stop Targeting Kids’ campaign and video in Dublin, the Foundation said it wants a blanket ban on junk food marketing online, an extension of the broadcast watershed from 6 pm to 9 pm and a ban on junk food advertising on State-owned transport and buildings.
It is also demanding the Government fulfils its 2020 commitment to introduce a Public Health (Obesity) Act.
The study of 500 parents and 500 teenagers shows social media (64%) is where most teens are exposed to high-fat, sugar and salt foods, particularly on TikTok, Snapchat, YouTube and Instagram – platforms teens access, on average, 38 times daily.
Separate UK research shows under-16s are exposed to 15.1 billion junk food ads every year online, Australian studies show junk food brands are targeting children with three ads every 10 minutes online and in Canada, youngsters are exposed to more than 100 ads a week.
The charity believes a similar trend exists here.
“One in 20 of this generation’s children will die prematurely due to being overweight and obesity. We are seeing cases of children as young as six presenting to doctors with high blood pressure,” said Mr Macey.
“If the Government does not act now, future generations will suffer and children will continue to die prematurely.
“In the midst of this crisis, the State continues to earn revenue from the promotion of junk foods on public transport, profiting from the damage being done to children’s health.”
He said it would have been “impossible” to reduce Ireland’s teen smoking rate from 41% to 12% if tobacco advertising had continued.
The data also shows Irish teenagers appear to know the risks of consuming unhealthy foods they see online, with over a third (35%) very worried and 32% saying they would support a junk food advertising ban to under-18s.
Meanwhile, 45% of parents are “very worried” about their child’s consumption of junk food and 49% say it is becoming more difficult to get their teenager to eat healthily.
Mr Macey asked the public to support the Foundation’s campaign and sign an online petition calling for the introduction of the Public Health (Obesity) Act at irishheart.ie.