Children view more than 40,000 advertisements on television each year, and exposure continues to grow as the internet and cell phones open up more opportunities for junk food companies to sell their products. A team of researchers from McMaster University in Canada decided to study how children are affected by these omnipresent ads.

Their findings, published in the journal Obesity Reviews, found 80 percent of the ads promote high-sugar and salty foods and drinks that teach children to make unhealthy dietary decisions. With twice as many children who are obese today than there were 30 years ago, researchers are calling for new regulations to prevent ads from teaching children to make unhealthy choices, and hopefully stem the growing obesity epidemic.

Unhealthy Advertisements
Advertisements featuring unhealthy foods and drinks lure children into choosing their products. Photo courtesy of Handout/ Getty Images

"The rates of overweight and obesity among children are rising worldwide," said the study’s lead author Behnam Sadeghirad, a PhD student in clinical epidemiology and biostatistics at McMaster, in a statement. "This review shows that the extensive exposure kids have to marketing of unhealthy foods and beverages via product packaging, TV, and the internet increases their short-term calorie intake and preference for junk food."

For the study, researchers examined what kind of foods and drinks 6,000 children preferred and how many calories they consumed each day. They conducted 29 trials where they observed how children reacted to unhealthy food and drink advertisements through television, video games, packaging, and magazines, and found that the children made significantly more unhealthy choices following exposure to ads. Because researchers found children are exposed to an average of five unhealthy food advertisements for every hour of television they watch, they believe regulations need to be implemented to limit children’s exposure.

Researchers also believe younger children are more susceptible to food and drink advertisements than older children. This finding is of particular concern because, according to the Obese Society, obese preschoolers are five times more likely than normal weight children to be overweight or obese as adults.

According to the study’s co-author Bradley Johnston, an assistant professor in the Department of Clinical Epidemiology and Biostatistics at McMaster: "The increasing prevalence of obesity seems to further coincide with marked increases in the food and beverage industry's budget for marketing aimed at children and youth, with data showing that energy-dense, low-nutrient foods and beverages make up the majority of commercially marketed products."

Another study recently conducted at the National Centre for Social Research revealed how children between the ages of 8 and 12 react right after they watch an advertisement. One 6-year-old boy said he might be in the middle of eating an apple, but if sees an ad for junk food, he’ll toss the apple and ask his mom for money to buy the unhealthy advertised item at the store. Meanwhile, a 5-year-old girl said she will keep asking her mom for the advertised junk food until mom goes to the store and gets it for her.

“It’s clear the restrictions already in place during children’s TV shows aren’t enough. Children are watching junk food adverts during family programs where these restrictions don’t apply,” said Alison Cox, director of prevention at Cancer Research UK, in a statement. “The rise in children’s obesity is a huge concern and a growing epidemic. There must be no delay in taking action. We know that obese children are around five times more likely to be obese adults, and obese adults are more likely to develop cancer. This is why we need regulations to stop junk food advertising on TV before the 9pm watershed to give children a better chance of a healthy life.”

Source: Sadeghirad B and Johnston B. Obesity Review. 2016.