Junk food advertising has an “addictive” influence on children’s eating habits and food choices, according to a new survey.
The survey, by Cancer Research UK, found that children are attracted to adverts that use celebrities, bright colours and funny voices. Although children themselves are well aware of their susceptibility, they describe these ads as making them "feel happy", and so “tempting” they could "lick the screen”.
Survey researchers talked to children aged between eight and 12 years old at six schools. Each group was shown two TV adverts for junk food, followed by a discussion.
Many of the children said they liked watching funny and engaging adverts and could recall advertising theme tunes. They also said they saw adverts during family TV time, saying they watched TV from “around about seven o'clock till eight or nine”.
Most children said they had asked their parents for things they had seen on TV, particularly new junk food products, flavours or eye-catching package designs.
“I asked my mum if I could have it and she said no and I was annoyed and I kept trying and she finally said yes and I got to go to the shops to get it,” explained a girl in Primary 5, from Edinburgh.
Another Year 5 girl from North Lanarkshire explained the effects of watching a TV commercial for sweets, saying: “It makes you feel as if you're happy and excited and it feels like you want to try it because the guy’s dancing in it because he's eaten it and it tastes good.” A Year 6 boy from Northamptonshire, relating his experience, said: “You might be eating a piece of fruit, you might see the advert, and you might just throw it in the bin and ask your mum for money and leg it to the shop.”
Concerned health leaders say it adds urgency to their call for the UK Government to release their long-awaited child obesity strategy. Professor Neena Modi, President of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH), said: “A third of 10-year-olds in the UK are overweight or obese and the overwhelming majority of these children will grow up to be overweight or obese adults. Obesity can kill as effectively as lung cancer so surely it's time to stop the food industries peddling these unnecessary wares to children. If the advertising of cigarettes can be banned, so too can advertising junk food.
“The UK Government's child obesity strategy has still not been released. We urge Government to publish this without further delay and put in place effective mechanisms to implement strategies that will be effective, such as banning the advertising of junk food and sugar-sweetened drinks to children.”
Dr Jyotsna Vohra, head of the Policy Research Centre for Cancer Prevention at Cancer Research UK, said: “It’s worrying to hear that children associate junk food with having a better time and it’s evident from the discussions that advertising can influence how they eat. Most kids said that adverts made them feel hungry and in many cases it had a direct effect, with some children more likely to “plead”, “nag” or “beg” their parents after seeing an advert.
Alison Cox, director of prevention at Cancer Research UK, said: “It’s clear the restrictions already in place during children’s TV shows aren’t enough. Children are watching junk food adverts during family programmes where these restrictions don’t apply. The rise in children’s obesity is a huge concern and a growing epidemic. There must be no delay in taking action. We know that obese children are around five times more likely to be obese adults, and obese adults are more likely to develop cancer. This is why we need regulations to stop junk food advertising on TV before the 9pm watershed to give children a better chance of a healthy life.”