Guest column: Hurting our kids’ health one social media post at a time

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By Monique Potvin Kent

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We are risking our children’s health by leaving social media out of planned federal regulations to limit marketing of unhealthy food and drinks.

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“tell me ur Halloween costume”

This tweet was posted on Halloween by one of Canada’s largest fast-food chains to their more than 168,000 Twitter followers. It was a follow-up to a tweet about a special meal deal for kids.

Given its style, spelling and request, what age group do you think it’s targeting? There’s only one answer of course – Canada’s youth.

Such posts are not one-offs on a popular children’s holiday. Our new study of Canadian social media in 2020 presents some alarming statistics.

The top 40 food and drink brands in food categories frequently targeted to children and adolescents in Canada tweeted a total of 30,294 times (more than 80 per day on average) with their tweets being seen an estimated 12.5 billion times. More than 99 per cent of these social media posts were from leading fast-food restaurants.

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If you think kids aren’t among that social media audience, consider some research has shown that over 40 per cent of Canadian children under the age of four have access to a smartphone — and by age 15 the rate is 80 per cent.

As for using social media, a 2015 report found one-third of children in grades 4 to 6 reported having a Facebook account, despite age restrictions on the website. And 44 per cent of Ontario children reported using social media two to four hours a day. Another 20 per cent reported using social media for five or more hours per day.

These numbers may have actually increased since the research was conducted, particularly as the pandemic drove everyone to their digital devices.

Social media marketing campaigns rely heavily on encouraging people to create and share posts about brands with their networks through hashtags, competitions and other interactive features. This is called user-generated content and it is especially influential because messages come from trusted friends, family or role models.

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In our study, funded by Heart & Stroke, we found in just one year, the top 40 food and beverage brands in Canada were mentioned in user-generated content 16.9 million times in Canada on Twitter, Reddit, Tumblr and YouTube.

Tweets alone about the top 40 brands were potentially seen an estimated 491 billion times, with fast-food restaurants dominating, followed by sugary drink brands.

The inescapable conclusion is our kids are being bombarded every day with enticements to consume unhealthy food and drinks.

Many kids are succumbing to the temptation, leading to poor dietary intake, health issues now and later in life and shortened life spans. The ubiquity of unhealthy food marketing on social media is hurting our kids and adding to the strains on our health system.

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The current “wild west” of social media marketing of unhealthy food and drinks needs to be reined in as part the federal government’s planned new regulations restricting marketing of such products to children under 13 years old.

Quebec has had such restrictions in place for children under 13 since 1980.

The enactment of these restrictions is long overdue, but if social media is not included the regulations will lose a very large part of their effectiveness. Allowing such a loophole may be exploited by industry and onslaught of marketing on social media could actually increase as a result.

Youth are a captive audience on social media. The food and beverage industry knows this and are already devoting a large part of marketing expenditures to online advertising.

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We know from positive experiences in other jurisdictions, including Quebec, restrictions on advertising to children works. But it is essential that regulations are comprehensive or the marketing bombardment will continue.

The federal government announced the Healthy Eating Strategy as one of its key commitments soon after it took office in 2015, but we are still waiting for these vital restrictions on unhealthy food marketing to be enacted.

Since that time, entire hugely popular social media platforms have been born and now reach millions of Canadians on top of the already popular platforms included in this research.

We urgently need enactment of these overall restrictions — and they must include social media.

Monique Potvin Kent is an associate professor in the University of Ottawa’s School of Epidemiology and Public Health and program director of Master of Public Health program.


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