Last updated: 04 Aug, 2022

Research report reveals how children in Australia are being exposed to digital marketing for harmful products, such as alcohol, unhealthy food and gambling.

Key messages

  • Kids’ personal data is under-protected, so harmful industries can use it to target them with aggressive and predatory marketing tactics

  • During the coronavirus pandemic, Australian children have spent more time online, but there’s also been a rise in targeted digital marketing for harmful products

  • From a young age, children see marketing for harmful products in digital spaces, in both obvious and subtle ways.

  • The consequences of digital marketing for alcohol, unhealthy food and gambling could be lifelong, impacting children’s health and wellbeing in years to come.

  • Australia must urgently act to protect children from the digital marketing of harmful products.  

“This report highlights the worrying fact that digital marketing for alcohol, unhealthy food and gambling is reaching children at a very young age, affecting their attitudes, habits, consumption – and health. These consequences could be lifelong, determining the habits they form and the quality of life they can achieve.”

Dr Sandro Demaio, CEO, VicHealth

 

Download: Under the radar: Harmful industries’ digital marketing to Australian children (PDF, 603 KB)

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Under the radar: Harmful industries’ digital marketing to Australian children

Children have grown up with digital technology as part of their everyday life, gaining a lot of value from their online connections.

Digital technology allows children to take part in education, connect with others and access entertainment. This has become even more essential during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

Alcohol, unhealthy food and gambling companies are constantly using innovative digital marketing approaches, which can make it hard for both kids and adults to tell when something is an advert in disguise.

Children should be able to take part in the digital world without being exposed to the marketing of harmful products.

This report focuses on children up to the age of 17, taking a collective approach to harmful industries – industries that produce and promote products that are harmful to health and wellbeing:

  • alcohol

  • unhealthy food (foods high in sugar, fat and/or salt, sugary drinks)

  • gambling.

This report covers:

  • children’s health and online behaviour

  • the impact of digital marketing

  • how children are exposed to harmful industry marketing in the digital space

  • the limited protections in place to protect Australian kids when they’re online

  • examples of action being taken in other countries.

 

Key report findings

  1. Setting the scene: children are surrounded by digital marketing of harmful products via websites, social media, gaming and influencers. Their viewing and browsing habits are also being monitored and recorded by harmful industries, to be used for marketing and promotion.

  2. Marketing of harmful products: digital marketing reaches young children, with evidence that this affects their attitudes, habits, consumption and health later in life.

  3. The digital marketing mix: children are exposed to a growing range of marketing activities online, a mix of clear advertising and more subtle techniques, which are harder to recognise by children and adults.

  4. The current (limited) protections in Australia: the framework overseeing digital advertising of harmful products to children is designed by harmful industries and prioritises profits over children’s health and wellbeing.

  5. Responses from around the world: efforts are under way in many countries to protect children’s online privacy and digital marketing of harmful products to children.

  6. Conclusion: time to act: a combined, system-wide approach is needed to make sure children can enjoy being online, but are protected from the marketing of harmful industries.

 

“There are laws to protect children in the real world – film ratings, car seats, age restrictions on drinking and smoking. We need our laws to protect children in the digital world, too”

Elizabeth Denham, Information Commissioner, UK

 

What's needed

Based on the conclusions made in this report, strong, evidence-based policies and government regulation are needed to protect children from digital marketing by harmful industries.

This should be backed up by stronger monitoring to provide a better picture of how harmful industries market their products through action in 3 areas:

  1. Platforms (e.g. Google, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, TikTok, Twitch, Snapchat) ensure that their processes are clear and protect children’s privacy and data online.

  2. Industries marketing alcohol, unhealthy food and gambling ensure harmful products are not advertised to children, including through influencers.

  3. Advertising agencies ensure they have processes in place to stop the supply of inappropriate marketing to children.

 

Media Literacy Lab – building young Australians’ essential media literacy skills 

Together with the Alannah & Madeline Foundation, we’re supporting children and young people to safely approach harmful digital marketing practices.

While we cannot rely on parents and awareness alone, it is also important that children are empowered to build digital literacy to increase their ability to recognise harmful industry digital marketing. Here are some of the things VicHealth is doing.

We’re helping teachers build young Australians’ essential media literacy knowledge and skills by engaging secondary students (age 12-16) through new, online education resources on harmful digital marketing. Here's the 3 learning modules:

  • Alcohol
  • Unhealthy Foods
  • Gambling

 

Hey Schools - this part is for you! 

Teachers can register and access the ‘Teacher Portal’, FREE of charge! Here, you’ll find the tools to create, preview and deliver modules to your classes. But that’s not all. We’ve also got a bunch of complementary ‘Harmful Digital Marketing’ resources for teachers. Handy things like:  

  • A new teacher guide for VicHealth modules
  • A Victorian Curriculum Alignment Rubric to support school & teacher planning
  • Digital Assets like infographics and illustrations
  • Educational video content
  • And links to professional reading materials

Register for FREE today

Outside of the classroom your students will have access to a portal. Here they’ll find engaging new learning content taught in a narrative ‘story world’ environment, with fictional and real-world examples. 

 

Critical Thinking Detectives  

In partnership with Museums Victoria, VicHealth is hosting a Critical Thinking Detectives - a Digital Marketing summit.

The free event, taking place on Thursday 25 August, is open to Victorian secondary schools. Students in year 7-10 will engage in meaningful discussions and creative activities to raise awareness about harmful industries and their intentions.  

Find out more about this event and register your school here.

Be quick - Registrations close 15 August.

 

More information

Find out more about the scope of VicHealth’s work on digital marketing and harmful industries, by visiting:

Under the radar: Harmful industries' digital marketing to Australian children

Dark marketing tactics of harmful industries exposed by young citizen scientists 

How the alcohol industry misleads young people on Facebook

Exposing predatory marketing to children by tobacco and e-cigarette companies

E-cigarettes and young people: what you need to know

 

Digital marketing is defined as promotional activity, delivered through a digital medium that seeks to increase impact.

Harmful industries is defined as industries that produce, sell and promote products that are harmful to health and wellbeing.