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News release: Want to market junk food to kids? There are apps for that

Study shows kids see thousands of ads for unhealthy foods and beverages per year on social media

Ottawa – New research commissioned by Heart & Stroke reveals three-quarters of children in Canada are exposed to food marketing while using their favourite social media applications. The majority of these ads are for ultra-processed foods and beverages high in fat, salt or sugar. 

The study looked at the most popular social media apps that kids and teens (ages 7-16 years) access using smartphones and tablets: Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter, YouTube. It found kids are exposed to food marketing on their favourite social media apps 111 times a week on average, equating to 5772 food and beverage ads per year on those apps alone. Even though some of these apps in theory require users to be at least 13 years old, younger children are using them and it is clear from the elements in the ads, including use of celebrities, that kids are being targeted.

“Our research shows that kids are frequently exposed to food and beverage ads and most of the products are considered to be unhealthy,” says Dr. Monique Potvin Kent, an assistant professor at the University of Ottawa and author of the study. “This level of exposure may greatly influence children’s perception of a normal diet as well as their food preferences and the foods they actually consume.” 

The companies promoted most frequently were McDonald’s (15%) followed by Starbucks (11%), PepsiCo (9%), Mars (5%), Coca-Cola (5%) and Restaurant Brand International (5%). The most frequently promoted food categories were fast food (44%), sugar sweetened beverages (9%), candy and chocolates (7%), snacks (6%) and alcohol (5%).

A second study examined food and beverage marketing on free gaming apps, showing kids see an average of 145 ads per year, over half of which were for ultra-processed foods and beverages high in fat, salt or sugar.

“It’s positive that the food and beverage industry is mostly steering clear of advertising on free gaming apps however, they are still targeting children with unhealthy food advertising where they congregate online. They’re focusing their marketing efforts on social media apps because they know kids are using these platforms,” says Dr. Potvin Kent. 

About Heart & Stroke

Life. We don’t want you to miss it. That’s why Heart and Stroke leads the fight against heart disease and stroke. We must generate the next medical breakthroughs, so Canadians don’t miss out on precious moments. Together, we are working to prevent disease, save lives and promote recovery through research, health promotion and public policy.

Contact Information

Stephanie Lawrence
Senior Manager, Communications, Heart & Stroke 
613.691.4022 or 613.290.4236
stephanie.lawrence@heartandstroke.ca