N8 AgriFood calls on social media firms to stop collecting data from children and selling it to junk food advertisers

N8 AgriFood has published an open letter calling on social media bosses to stop collecting data from children in a fight to protect youngsters from being targeted by persuasive and unhealthy marketing campaigns.

Research within the N8 AgriFood programme has found direct links between exposure to marketing of processed foods and beverages that are high in fats, sugars and/or salt (so called ‘HFSS’ items), and an increase in consumption among children.

Corresponding research reveals that children who used the Internet for more than three hours per day had almost 300% greater odds of spending their pocket money on advertised products than children who were low Internet users.

N8 AgriFood is now calling on social media bosses to act on the issue, openly pledging to stop collecting data from under 18’s and then selling it on to advertisers for HFSS products.

In an open letter to policy chiefs at Facebook, Twitter, Google, Instagram, Snapchat and Microsoft, Northern-based food systems researchers highlight the consequences of selling data obtained from children in relation to childhood obesity.

The letter has been signed by 15 senior academics from across all eight universities within N8 AgriFood, and has been back by the EASO (the European Association for the Study of Obesity).

Dr Emma Boyland, (Senior Lecturer in Appetite and Obesity, University of Liverpool, N8 AgriFood), has contributed research to reports by the World Health Organization and Cancer Research UK on the effects of HFSS marketing on children.*

She said: “It’s not all about television anymore when we talk about how food marketers can reach young people, digital media has afforded them an ability by which they can speak directly to young people, using very persuasive techniques.

“What we see in the UK is that even at the ages of 8 to 11, almost a quarter of children have a social media profile, and typically that is a younger age than what is legally required by the social media platforms. When you look at 12 to 15 year olds that has gone up to nearly three quarters of them, and they are online for more than 13 hours and up to 21 hours a week. There’s a lot more dual screen viewing, and different consumption of these types of media.

“There is an awful lot of proliferation of marketing messages that is just amplifying what is said on tv, what is said on billboards, on food packaging, on point of sale, on sports sponsorship, and it’s moving through the digital system in quite a staggering way.

“The thing about digital media is, it offers these amazing techniques to marketers to target young people, but it limits our ability to understand how much and what children are seeing online, because marketing delivered digitally is personalised to the individual, it’s based on the profile of who you are, your age, your gender, your interest and where you’ve been. Relentless data collection, even from minors, is at the heart of how this works.”

Alongside taking the problem straight to those behind social media platforms, N8 AgriFood is urging Government to put policies in place to control levels of HFSS advertising viewed by children both online and via other media.

Dr Boyland asserts the Government’s ambitions to halve childhood obesity by 2030 will not be met unless preventative measures are put in place to stop the staggering amount of marketing young people are exposed to and the creative content of that marketing that drives the persuasive effect.

As well as seeking policy that prevents the collection of data from under 18’s online, N8 AgriFood is joining numerous health campaign groups in calling on Government to introduce a national roll out of the HFSS advertising ban on the Transport for London estate.

The research programme is also backing requests for a 9pm television watershed on HFSS adverts; an issue highlighted by celebrity chef Jamie Oliver’s #Adenough campaign, and under review by Government through a public consultation closing on June 10.

The consultation follows Government’s “Childhood Obesity: a plan for action, chapter 2” report, which also references research by Dr Boyland, and describes childhood obesity as being one of the most pressing public health challenges we face.

Dr Boyland added: “It is clear that if we are to support healthier consumption, we must first tackle the negative influence of unhealthy food marketing that currently undermines public health efforts to raise children to eat healthy, sustainable diets.

“If we can generate enough evidence that this is causing harm then it really does support policy action to make the food environment healthier for young people and for all of us.

Young people are the main recipients of food marketing and they are the ones most vulnerable to its effects.”