According to network rules that regulate British TV, sex scenes are kept off the airwaves until after nine PM in order to protect children from their influence. The results of a recent study conducted by researchers by the University of Liverpool are now prompting calls for similar restrictions on food advertisements.
Children between the ages of six and thirteen were shown ten advertisements for junk food. After watching the ads, the children were provided with a questionnaire in which they were asked to choose between three food options. The options were described as “high fat, high carbohydrate”, “high protein,” and “low energy.” The high protein options included items like roast chicken. The low energy options included items like salad.
After answering the questions, the children were then shown a series of ten advertisements for toys and presented with a similar questionnaire.
The results of the study suggest that children exposed to unhealthy food ads (as opposed to toy ads) are far more likely to show unhealthy eating preferences. These effects were especially pronounced among study subjects who typically watched more than 21 hours of TV per week.
As they made these unhealthy selections, the children did not discriminate based on brand. According to lead researcher Dr. Emma Boyland, this was one of the most worrisome results of the survey.
“The unhealthy options we gave them after the adverts were not the same as those which were featured in the adverts,” said Boyland. “This suggests that children are encouraged to eat bad food in general, which is worse.”
Existing network rules already outlaw junk food advertising on dedicated children’s channels and on programs directly targeted to children under the age of nine. The findings of this study are now leading scientists like Boyland to push for new restrictions that would keep junk food ads limited until a watershed of nine PM.
Like the U.S., Britain is facing what many describe as an obesity epidemic. According the British Department of Health, almost one in ten six year olds and fifteen percent of fifteen year olds in England are currently classified as obese.
“We really need to be careful about when these adverts are being shown,” says Boyland. “A watershed for junk food adverts would ensure that they are banned from not just children’s programs during the day but programs shown at night where families view them together. Parents also need to limit their children’s screen time and talk to them about the motives behind advertising.”