Unhealthy food companies are using social media promotions to co-opt children into working for them “for free” while also collecting data about their junk food preferences, a health conference in Sydney has been told.
Associate Prof Teresa Davis, whose work has informed World Health Organization food guidelines, said brands were using social media to “build a two-way relationship with children”, which she described as “far more worrisome” than traditional forms of advertising.
“Interactive media is bringing in a new set of opportunities to engage with children and build connection between manufacturers, marketers and children directly,” Davis said.
“It’s no longer one-way communication with brands speaking to the children, but the child is speaking back. And it is of great concern.”
Davis described tactics used by the industry to lure children in, such as encouraging children to take a photo of themselves with a particular food product and post it to social media for the chance of winning a “prize” including a supply of that food.
Food companies are also developing online games, with one example given being children encouraged to shoot cannon balls at a food target, putting the brand “front and centre”, Davis said.
In another example shown by Davis, a child was supplied with various unhealthy foods and videoed himself “unboxing” and tasting the foods to his social media followers.
Brands also encourage children to “tag” their friends in posts promoting unhealthy food products for a chance to win the product for their friends on social media, allowing food companies to collect child food preference data, Davis said.
“Children are doing the work for the brands, and for free,” Davis told conference attendees.
“In another era, this would be described as child labour. It is so ubiquitous, it’s such an ecosystem around children, and they are being used by advertisers in a way that we haven’t seen before.”
Hosted by the Charles Perkins Centre at the University of Sydney, the two-day conference is examining how harmful industries including tobacco, vaping, food, gambling and pharmacy influence health.
Tobacco control expert Prof Becky Freeman told attendees the idea that governments could not regulate the online space needed to be challenged.
“These platforms can be held to account and we just need the guts to do that,” Freeman said. “We can’t fall for the idea they’re ungovernable spaces and impossible to keep track of.”
Davis said brands found to be advertising towards children should be “made to pay” through fines, with the funds generated used to promote healthy foods.
In October, Independent MP Sophie Scamps called for an urgent parliamentary inquiry into the impact of advertising on children and young people by harmful industries, after revelations by Guardian Australia of the harms to children from the gambling and vaping industries.