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The impact of junk food ads on children

Child having an argument with mother at candy counter
Credit: iStock.com/Filipovic018

A common complaint among parents visiting supermarkets with young children is the challenge of keeping them away from junk food – whether or not it’s positioned at a child- friendly height.

Junk food advertising seems to be everywhere around us. It is in the shopping centres and it is on screens of all types, phones, tablets and television, and now that most children are engaged with digital and social media platforms from a very young age, there’s an increase in their exposure to the marketing of unhealthy food.

But how much of the junk food commercials are young children really absorbing? In the hopes of understanding how many unhealthy products are marketed to children, scientists at Deakin University will use revolutionary eye tracking devices to work out how and why junk food commercials appeal to children.

With children, the devices can be worn during normal activities. The device connects to a mobile phone, so it works wirelessly. It is able to look at blinking and pupil dilation, so it will detect when the child is paying attention and focused on something. There is no other tool available today that could perform this task.
Associate Professor Asim Bhatti

Eye tracking project a world first

Associate Professor Asim Bhatti, an expert in cognition and performance assessment at Deakin's Institute for Intelligent Systems Research and Innovation (IISRI) says the eye tracking project is a world first.

“It is an exciting and important project because, for the first time, it will be possible to measure exactly how much attention children pay to junk food advertising when they’re in a regular setting, such as a supermarket, instead of in a laboratory setting,” Professor Bhatti says.

“The project will examine the visual factors that cause children to take up harmful habits such as junk food, alcohol, and cigarettes. The major benefit of the eye tracking technology is that we'll be able to see what's more engaging to children as they go about their usual routine. We will be focusing on the advertising they are exposed to from the moment they walk into a shopping centre.”

Deakin University scientists will be using iPupilX eye tracking technology, which was originally developed for use by the military and elite athletes.

“The way the eye tracking technology is currently used in the military allows us to see what the soldier is looking at and for how long they were looking at a particular object.  The device monitors what they’re looking at and alerts them if there’s a threat they haven’t seen,” Associate Professor Bhatti says.

“With children, the devices can be worn during normal activities. The device connects to a mobile phone, so it works wirelessly. It is able to look at blinking and pupil dilation, so it will detect when the child is paying attention and focused on something. There is no other tool available today that could perform this task.”  

Previous experiments involving children and advertising have only been carried out in a controlled setting, which can have an impact on how a child will concentrate on their environment. But this will be the first time that the device will be used in the child’s normal day to day setting.

The project is a collaboration between IISRI and Deakin's Global Obesity Centre (GLOBE), and the results will support future policies to protect children and the wider public health.

Professor Bhatti says the eye tracking project team will approach a couple of schools in Victoria and, with parental consent, include up to 20 children in the experiment, where they will be walked around a few shops.

The Deakin-led eye-tracking project is supported by Cancer Council Victoria through its Venture Grants program.

So why does it matter?

When it comes to junk food, nutritionist Grace Pettitt says there are many reasons parents need to limit unhealthy food, especially for a rapidly growing and developing child.

“The human body can be a complex system, requiring a number of essential nutrients to function harmoniously. Consistently providing children with ‘empty calories’ can be detrimental to both their physical and cognitive development. Empty calories provide little to no nutrition, filling children up without delivering important nutrients required for every day functioning, leading to nutritional deficiencies and unhealthy weight gain,” Ms Pettitt says.

“Sugary foods provide an instant energy hit, and for children in particular, this can be like going on an emotional rollercoaster. I think we’ve all witnessed this post birthday celebrations.  Not only does this energy surge come with the highs and lows, it also makes it extremely difficult for an already inquisitive child to stay focused on one task at a time, creating a potential impact on their learning abilities.” 

According to Ms Pettit, while eating some junk food is inevitable, parents should educate their kids about “sometimes food”.

“We can explain that while we do have cake to celebrate birthdays but that’s not the only way we celebrate our love for our friends and family. Emphasis can be placed on having fun with our friends, having a laugh and playing games rather than creating an emotional connection between sugar and happiness,” Ms Pettit says.

“Kids don’t always feel great after consuming sugary treats, so it’s a good time to speak to them about food moderation and that our bellies can sometimes feel unwell from foods that aren't making us healthy and strong.”

Ms Pettit says she is very mindful of keeping relationships with food positive, so that healthy foods shouldn’t be seen as boring, tasteless, or something we “have” to do.

“I believe it begins with changing attitudes around good, nutritious foods in a sustainable way, and doing the best you can for yourself and your family.”