Privacy loophole leaving kids exposed to fast food ads served up right to their digital devices

Parents won’t be “loving it” when children targeted by junk food marketers, researchers warn

A gap in online privacy protection is leaving Canadian children vulnerable to a diet of unrelenting fast-food ads served up direct to their personal devices, a new study has found.

In the first study of its kind worldwide, University of Ottawa researchers concerned about the impact of junk food marketing on kids looked at popular fast-food and dine-in restaurant apps and the data they collect when kids use them. 

“What’s most striking about the results is just how little we know about what data these food companies collect on our children and what they plan to do with it,” says Dr. Monique Potvin Kent, associate professor at the University of Ottawa and lead author of the study. “Data is invaluable to marketers looking to sway customers with targeted ads. Kids are essentially sitting ducks given the amount of time they spend online.”

Researchers analyzed the privacy policies and terms of service for mobile apps from 26 top Canadian fast food and dine-in restaurants. They also looked at the data collected on children by five fast food company apps by recruiting nine- to 12-year-old kids to order food through the selected apps, then asking their parents to make a request to the company for details about the data collected on their child.

Less than half of restaurants (only 46%) provided the information, leaving a black hole in the type of data being collected on kids and how marketers intend to use it. Most companies didn’t indicate the age of the intended app user and no company had an age verification process. 

The study highlights the need for comprehensive rules on marketing to kids. “It’s time for the government to protect kids from the lure of junk food marketing everywhere they live and play including in digital spaces. A healthier future for our children is possible and government regulation is key,” Potvin Kent says.

Funded by Heart & Stroke, the research is particularly relevant now, as Health Canada has said it will draft new regulations to address food marketing to kids by winter 2024. The push for change in Canada is supported by the World Health Organization, which recommended in July that countries around the world adopt comprehensive rules to protect kids from unhealthy food and beverage marketing, including in digital spaces. 

Heart & Stroke welcomes the updated regulations and encourages the government to announce the new rules as soon as possible, says Doug Roth, Heart & Stroke CEO. “We look forward to a policy that will support families in making healthy choices while defending them against unethical marketing techniques that jeopardize their children's long-term health,” Roth says.

About Heart & Stroke

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Natalie Lian
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