In a study published in the journal Public Health Nutrition, scholars from the Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth found that pre-schoolers who were exposed to child-targeted fast-food commercials on TV were considerably more likely to consume fast-food products.
For their nine-month study, the researchers recruited 548 parents who had a pre-school age child (average of 4.4 years) to complete a written survey during their visits to clinics in Southern New Hampshire. Parents reported their child’s viewing time, channels watched, and fast-food consumption during the past week. Subsequently, their responses were combined with a list of fast-food commercials aired on children’ TV during that same period to calculate the children’s exposure to child-targeted TV ads from three fast-food restaurant chains: McDonald’s, Subway, and Wendy’s.
- 43% of the pre-schoolers ate food from these restaurants during the past week and 41% had been exposed to the TV ads.
- Moderate or high exposure to TV ads increased the likelihood of consuming the fast food by about 30%. This association was independent of the overall number of hours of TV the children watched, the frequency with which their parents ate fast food, and other factors like socioeconomic status.
- McDonald’s accounted for nearly three-quarters of the TV commercials and 79% of the children’s fast-food consumption.
Madeline Dalton, lead author on the study underlined that the findings are particularly concerning because children under 6 years of age can’t distinguish between ads and programs when they’re watching TV- which makes them very vulnerable to persuasive messaging. “These data provide empirical evidence in support of policy recommendations to limit child-directed fast-food marketing on TV,” she said.
Meghan Longacre, co-author of the study added: “An important part of the take-home message for parents is that there are preschool channels that don’t feature fast-food advertising, and to the extent that they can direct their child’s viewing to those channels exclusively, they themselves can protect their children from that exposure.”
The scholars also highlighted that more needs to be done to inform national policy around child-targeted fast-food marketing practices and revealed their plans to conduct a longitudinal study, which will allow them to collect and analyse data on things like the actual food choices children make and even more precise estimates of their viewing time per channel.