Are teens susceptible to food ads in digital media?

Image copyright: Martin O’Brien, O’Brien Creative

Smartphones and social media in the lives of young people are frequently discussed. One topic that gets less of an airing is teens’ exposure to extensive marketing and advertising in digital media. Should this be a concern? Aren’t young people sensible enough to be aware of what ads are trying to do — and savvy enough to know how to ignore them?

The World Health Organization has warned that we need to tackle rising obesity rates worldwide as a matter of urgency. It concluded that marketing for unhealthy food affects children’s preferences and we should reduce their exposure to it.

In contrast, food companies use psychological research to argue that teens — unlike younger children — are competent decision-makers. They argue teens understand advertising and can make good choices about their food and snack consumption, so food advertisers should be free to target teens.

Child and media psychologists have carried out experiments to identify when children learn to assess advertising. Most of this research has taken place for TV viewing. Children’s knowledge of ads progresses in stages: most preschool children don’t know the difference between an ad and other content they see on TV, but by later in childhood — before they reach their teens — most children have acquired advertising ‘literacy’. They understand that an ad is an ad, and that the person who made the ad is trying to sell them something. With this knowledge, the logic goes, young people have the ability to resist marketing messages.

However, there are many problems with assuming that young people’s advances in thinking skills means that they can resist food advertising.

  1. First, children find ads in digital media much harder to distinguish from other web page content.
  2. Second, in social media, ads are designed to be particularly engaging, emotionally appealing, and entertaining. They build on young people’s passions — their loves for humour, music, movies, sports, games, celebrities and role models. Ads also leverage friendships, encouraging young people to like, comment on and share ads within their social networks and to ‘tag’ their friends.
  3. Third, advertisers have long known that the most effective ads are not those that appeal to our cognitions (thinking) but rather those that appeal to emotions. This means that understanding the purpose of advertising is not actually that relevant when it comes to resisting an ad’s effects. Instead, the question is: once the emotions are engaged, do we have the motivation to resist?

Finding the motivation to resist can be particularly difficult for teens, as features of the developmental stage of adolescence mean teens may be particularly vulnerable to unhealthy food and drink advertising. Teens can be quite impulsive, and more oriented to their friends’ points of view than to perspectives from the adults around them. They also often have a little spending money, and spend more time away from their families. In many countries across Europe they use ‘junk’ food as a way of expressing a teen identity separate from the adult world of healthy eating advice.

Of course, these factors don’t apply to all teens — who vary just as adults do. Some focus on health, or ‘clean eating’, and some certainly make sensible choices about their snacks, among many other things. But marketers in social media can use data to aim messages promoting unhealthy foods and soft drinks specifically at those young people who are more likely to be susceptible to them. This feature of digital advertising sets it apart from advertising on TV, and it means that it has the potential to increase the scale of the problem. Many researchers in this field therefore believe it’s time to create ways for teens to take part in the digital world without being targeted by marketers with immersive, engaging, entertaining marketing that has been shown to damage their health.

Dr Mimi Tatlow-Golden is a Lecturer in Developmental Psychology and Childhood at The Open University. Her research explores aspects of children’s selves and their worlds, including food, food marketing, digital media, school, and mental health. This article was previously published in March 2017 on OpenLearn. You should subscribe to our newsletter for more free courses, articles, games and videos.

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