The obesity problem in kids goes beyond advertising

While the discussion of banning junk food advertising in Australian media rages on, Alice Almeida, founder and MD at The Amber Network and regional head of data, research and insights at TotallyAwesome, shares why the issue of obesity goes beyond TV and radio.

Fast food advertising is again under the spotlight after teal MP, Dr Sophie Scamps introduced a bill (The Healthy Kids Advertising Bill 2023) to parliament seeking to ban all fast food advertising on TV, radio, social media, and other parts of online media. The bill will bring in greater consequences for media which advertises fast food brands on its platform.

Dr Scamps said “we know our children are exposed to over 800 junk food ads on TV alone every year, and that there is a direct link between those ads and childhood obesity.” So it looks like this new bill is being driven due to kids being exposed to fast food advertising.

There are currently strict rules in place when it comes to advertising to kids and teens. Fast food brands are not allowed to advertise to kids under the age of 15 because it is deemed an “occasional” food – high in sugar or fat.

Let me also be very clear, I don’t agree with serving fast food ads to kids, and I don’t agree with kids being on social media. If I had my way, the legal age to access social media would be 16, but that’s another discussion.

Here are some confronting statistics from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare:

  • 25% of Australian kids and adolescents aged 2-17 are overweight or obese, with 1 in 12 considered obese.
  • Although overweight and obesity rates for all Australian children and adolescents have plateaued since 2007–08, rates for Indigenous children and adolescents increased from 31% in 2012–13 to 38% in 2018–19. The biggest increase was for children aged 5–9 (from 27% to 36%).

So, clearly there’s a problem.

This bill is a fantastic initiative, but I’d caution people who think that this is a panacea for childhood obesity. My theory is that advertising may not be driving the problem so much as behaviour and environment. Stopping the advertising of something to kids won’t solve the problem entirely. It doesn’t work that way. There needs to be significant change in other areas as well. There are many factors contributing to obesity among our kids outside of advertising, and it’s vital to understand what they are, and act on those in parallel.

So, what are these other factors?

The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare has highlighted that outside of advertising, other key factors which contribute to excess weight in kids and adolescents are a lack of physical activity and poor sleep. In summary, environment plays a huge role in the overall health of kids.

Let’s break these other factors down.

Physical Activity

Australia, the great sporting nation? Not anymore. Only 23% of Australian teens frequently play sport in 2023, a staggering decline of 43% from 2020*. Read that again…. Only 23% play sport. This has been due to COVID lockdowns shifting “play behaviour” from out on a field or court, to inside on a device.

If the decline of teens playing sport isn’t a concern to our politicians, then it should be. Playing sport is not only great for a teen’s overall health, but their mental state as well.

Poor Sleep

In research conducted by TotallyAwesome, a youth-first specialist marketing and media platform, we have found that kids and teens are getting nowhere near enough sleep each night.

In fact, 75% of Australian teens 13-18 and 45% of kids 4-12 get less than 8 hours sleep a night. Given kids should be getting 9-12 hours and teens 8-10 hours each night, they are a few hours short, which can have damaging consequences.

Given sleep is a contributing factor to obesity, then education must be done on the importance of the right amount of sleep for the age of the child and teen. Parents must be made aware of this as a contributing factor.

Family Environment

‘Environment’ leads me to my last point. The age range which saw the largest increase of overweight or obesity YoY are kids 5-9. Let’s dig into this age group a bit more…

  • Legally, fast food brands aren’t allowed to advertise to this audience in Australia, and technically they aren’t supposed to be on social media either, but according to our research, 1 in 4 Australian kids aged 5-9 either have access or an account on Facebook, Instagram, or TikTok, but kids will be kids. So, what do I think should be done to tackle this? We need to keep educating parents on the dangers of kids being on social media, especially if they have set up a profile using a fake age. We should also be applying pressure to social media platforms to do more to keep our kids off it.
  • Kids 5-9 aren’t taking themselves to fast food chains for an afternoon snack. They aren’t seeing an ad for a Big Mac, raiding their piggy bank, and heading to their local fast food chain. Adults are taking them there. In the midst of a cost-of-living crisis, it’s not surprising that families may be becoming increasingly reliant on fast food to provide cost-effective meals. Rather than simply targeting advertising, politicians need to find a path for families struggling with cost pressures to affordably and healthily provide food for their children.
  • According to Amanda Abel, Paediatric Psychologist, kids typically mirror/mimic behaviour they see or are exposed to, so it’s vital that adults have the tools and support to role model the values they want their kid to have when it comes to healthy eating and exercise.

I’m not highlighting all of this to be a negative Nancy. It’s clearly a huge problem that needs to be looked at and immediately. Any change will help, and if cutting advertising can help 10% of obese kids, then great!

However, I feel banning fast food advertising may be a high profile yet band-aid attempt to fix the problem. Obesity in kids and teens is part of a much bigger societal issue which the government would do well to focus on. Directing our attention on supporting parents may provide more sustainable and far-reaching benefits than simply focusing on the kids.

If we’re serious about improving the overall health of our kids and teens, we need to look at the bigger picture. The ban on junk food advertising needs to be first step of more to come. Addressing the items above may go a long way towards solving our childhood obesity problems, which is the least we owe to the next generation of Australians.

Alice Almeida is the founder and managing director at The Amber Network and regional head of data, research and insights at TotallyAwesome. 


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