AS a society, we have a duty of care to look after the wellbeing of our children. It’s why we install fences around backyard pools, put child restraints in cars, set age limits for watching movies and height limits for amusement park rides.

These measures acknowledge the vulnerabilities of youth. They are in place to safeguard our children, allowing them to learn, socialise and play in a safe environment where their health and wellbeing is protected and nurtured. Offline and online.

Under the radar, a new report by VicHealth and co-contributors, the Obesity Policy Coalition and the Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education, highlights the alarming extent to which children’s right to participate online – safe from the promotion of harmful products – is being compromised.

Armed with powerful algorithms and online activity data, often mined by social media giants from unsuspecting users, companies are employing covert digital marketing tactics to promote their gambling products, alcoholic drinks and unhealthy food to people aged under 18 years – Australia’s children. All these products have been proven to be harmful to the health and wellbeing of children, sometimes with long-lasting consequences.

Unhealthy habits formed in childhood can last a lifetime. Gambling can lead to reduced social interaction and mental health issues, crippling financial losses, and family breakdown. Diets packed with processed foods and sugary drinks lead to unhealthy weight gain, which over time leads to increased risk of preventable non-communicable diseases such as cardiovascular disease, cancer and type 2 diabetes. Alcohol can damage the developing brain and directly contributes to the three leading causes of death among adolescents (suicide, road accidents, accidental poisoning).

It is inconceivable that we, as a society, would allow this to happen. Yet without the right public health policies in place to protect children online, we are bystanders to the exploitation of children by corporations to build consumers, build them early and hold them for life – all in the pursuit of profit.

It’s time to put the rights of children first. Children should be free to study, play and socialise safely online without having their every interaction recorded and repurposed as a tool for the targeted advertising of harmful products.

The level of detail collected, and used, by the global social media giants such as Google, Facebook and YouTube is alarming. Children’s social media responses, preferences, emotions, locations and interactions are all harvested. Their gaming habits, search and browsing activity is saved and then sold to companies that use the data-rich insights for their own gain.

It’s highly valuable information that can create a profile of an individual – or a cohort. This information is often gathered when children make simple actions like signing up to use a Snapchat filter or “liking” or sharing content, and largely children don’t even realise what information they are releasing, let alone the purposes for which it will be used.

A joint investigation by the Guardian and the Danish Broadcasting Corporation in 2019 found Facebook flagged 740 000 children under 18 years living in the European Union as interested in gambling and a further 940 000 children as being interested in alcohol.

For its part, Facebook says it works with regulators to avoid advertisements being targeted at children. However, a study of a sample of Victorian 11–16-year-olds found that over half of them recalled seeing gambling advertising on social media. More concerningly, research by the Victorian Responsible Gambling Foundation reveals teenagers are an attractive target for gambling marketers because they are four times more likely to develop gambling problems than adults.

When it comes to unhealthy food, there is little formal government protection for children. The advertisers and processed food industry have developed their own system of complex codes, which give the impression of protecting children but in reality still allow large volumes of unhealthy food marketing to reach and influence even very young children. This is evidenced by apps with games designed for 4-year-olds that promote McDonald’s Happy Meals and the codes’ classification of high sugar cereal, Coco Pops as a “healthier” product that can be marketed to children.

Gambling is covered by federal laws prohibiting gambling companies from directly marketing to children. However, social media, online gaming and e-sports can still expose children to gambling content and advertising. Social casino games freely use imagery to appeal to children, including bright colours and cartoons.

Society agrees that children shouldn’t consume gambling and alcohol products. And yet digital alcohol advertising is overseen by the industry’s Alcohol Beverages Advertising Code, which has been shown to be a failure in terms of effectively minimising children’s exposure to alcohol marketing. The Code is so full of holes it cannot stop alcohol ads being streamed during shows such as Junior MasterChef. Even when complaints are upheld, as was the case in 2019, children have already been served alcohol ads with their morning YouTube cartoons. In a world where each child sees different algorithmically delivered content, a system that relies on complaints is not fit for purpose.

Evidence shows industry marketing codes can’t be relied upon to act in the interests of, and protect, Australia’s children. But governments can act, and have done so overseas.

In Finland, alcohol advertisers must disable the sharing function on their social media posts, while Chile has restricted advertising unhealthy food to children under 14 years on all media platforms. In July 2019, Italy became the first country in Europe to ban the marketing of gambling products and services.

In the UK, the government is considering stronger protections to stop any online marketing of unhealthy food, which would set the highest standards on digital marketing in the world.

There is much Australia can do. The digital environment is an ever-changing space through which children will always have to navigate. But they should do so without being targeted or exposed to harmful product marketing. Governments must act to protect children with strong, effective regulation and public policy that puts children, and their rights, before industry profits.

Only then can we be confident our children can live as happily and healthily online as off.

Dr Sandro Demaio is the CEO of VicHealth.

Jane Martin is the Executive Manager of the Obesity Policy Coalition. Her interests lie in research, knowledge translation and partnerships to support change.  

Trish Hepworth is the Director, Policy and Research for the Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education, working towards an Australia free from alcohol harms.



The statements or opinions expressed in this article reflect the views of the authors and do not represent the official policy of the AMA, the MJA or InSight+ unless so stated.

4 thoughts on “Under the radar: predatory digital marketing practices targeting kids

  1. Anonymous says:

    Gambling sites will always exist, as well as so many other things like drugs… the important thing to keep in mind is that the internet is not made for children. Lots of hate and misinformation is all over the internet and kids under 12 just don’t know how to control their emotions, block out bad people, and tell what is real what is not.

  2. Venkat Narayanan says:

    I agree with the authors and their findings and commend them for bringing this issue out into the open. I also think that adults are equally unaware of how their personal data feeds into the algorithms of big corporates and this is a big issue which in my view feeds into the problems of children not being aware of how their data is being used.

    Parents needs to be educated (myself included) on how to talk to our children about the online world but also marketing in general, online or on TV. For instance, when I’m watching sport with my kids and the betting ads come on, I’ve made it a point to talk to them about the ad and what its all about. So my kids (9 and 5 yrs old) are aware of what betting ads are and how they can lead to problems. I do use a bit of humour too by saying that if they really felt like throwing their money away, they could just give it to me!!

    Seriously however, while I agree that there needs to be regulation around this, perhaps we could also target parent and try to educate them about the risks that their children face and how they can talk to them about it. This however is harder said than done, but perhaps this can be done via the school system.

  3. Anonymous says:

    ‘Children should be free to study, play and socialise safely online…’
    I do think this is to fundamentally misunderstand the nature of online as an entity.

  4. Miranda Jelbart, Rehabilitation Physician says:

    Thank you for this overdue and important message. This is where so many of us would like to see Scott Morrison putting his leadership muscle into action. Unless we look after our children’s future well-being by stricter care and attention to quality environments, activities and nutrition now, we will face a deconditioned, etiolated and impulse ridden society as many of these youngsters will go on develop some inevitable issues that are being widely predicted and are so obviously brewing .

    Being willing to make some tough and possibly unpopular restrictions on the freedoms that allow the corporate giants to pervert social media platforms in their insidious ways, and sticking by these limits against all the pressure – will be for the greater good – and would engage huge public and bipartisan support, from parents, clinicians and educators.

    Why not start with the Sugar tax? Real results, real benefits wherever it has been brought in.

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