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Harmful industries’ digital marketing to Australian children

Understand the research then register for free 'Media Literacy Lab' modules for schools.

14 Dec 2023
Research and Publications
Illustration of kids using tablets and smartphones

Research report


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 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
Under the radar: Hardful industries' digital marketing to Australian Children

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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

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.

Marketing of harmful products

Digital marketing reaches young children, with evidence that this affects their attitudes, habits, consumption and health later in life.

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.

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.

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.

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 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.

Hey Schools - this part is for you! 

We cannot rely on parents and awareness alone, so it's important that children are empowered to build digital literacy to increase their ability to recognise harmful industry digital marketing. 

Teachers can register and access the ‘Teacher Portal’, FREE of charge! 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 the 3 x VicHealth modules on alcohol, unhealthy foods and gambling
  • 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 access

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  

Young people are engaging with technology like never before. And while it should be a space to explore, learn and connect, young people are surrounded by digital marketing of harmful products.

Companies involved with unhealthy food, alcohol and gambling are using a mix of digital marketing tactics - some of them pretty sneaky – to try and influence behaviour.

So sneaky in fact, that it can be hard for young people and parents to know when something is an ad in disguise.

But it’s not all doom and gloom! We teamed up with Museums Victoria to expose these companies – and their dodgy tactics – with the Critical Thinking Detectives summit!

It was a day of learning and playing (did someone say augmented reality?!), to get young people across the good, the bad and the ugly of digital marketing, coming away from the day with the tools, teachings and confidence to identify those harmful ads in disguise.


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 

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.

Artwork by Dexx (Gunditjmara/Boon Wurrung) ‘Mobs Coming Together’ 2022
VicHealth acknowledges the Traditional Owners of the land. We pay our respects to all Elders past, present and future.
This website may contain images, names and voices of deceased people.

VicHealth acknowledges the support of the Victorian Government.

Artwork Credit: Dexx (Gunditjmara/Boon Wurrung) ‘Mobs Coming Together’ 2022, acrylic on canvas. Learn more about this artwork.