Assessing the impact of online junk food advertising on teenagers – nesta

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Does the government's ban on unhealthy food advertising online go far enough?
As part of our healthy life mission, we wanted to investigate what food environments look like for young people. The government ban on unhealthy food and drinks marketing is currently going through parliament as part of the Health and Care Bill and looks set to become law from 2023. It is a positive first step towards improving some of the influencing factors that can underly obesity in young people but does it go far enough?
Research shows that exposure to unhealthy food adverts may have a detrimental effect on young people’s food choices. One study by Cancer Research UK suggests that the chances of being obese more than doubles for teenagers who can recall recently seeing food marketing on social media.
In the UK, we are currently seeing high obesity rates among young people. According to the NHS, around 25% teenage boys and nearly 20% of teenage girls aged 11-15 are considered obese. These stark figures mean we need robust evidence about young people’s exposure to (and understanding of) the unhealthy marketing they see if we are to effectively reduce obesity levels.
We believe that young people need greater protection from online advertising and launched this project to test our hypothesis before suggesting further changes to policy that may improve the health of young people. To find out more, we ran a study with teenagers to find out how much food and drink marketing they were exposed to and to assess their understanding of online food advertising.

Our citizen social science project involved young people aged 13-16 actively participating in generating new data about the digital marketing of food and drinks. We used a gamified crowdsourcing method to help retain participants' engagement and motivation.
To find out more about the marketing teenagers saw, we needed to understand the digital landscape through their eyes. We did this by actively engaging young people to become researchers by sharing screenshots of marketing they saw across devices and platforms. This helped us understand more about the amount of online marketing young people saw and the level of awareness young people have about the marketing they are exposed to online.
We worked in partnership with the youth organisation Bite Back 2030 to engage teenagers in this issue and develop creative ways to share our insights.

Our research, which you can read more about below, found that the majority of food and drink marketing reported by the young people in the project was for unhealthy products. The participants in lower income groups reported about 50% more examples of unhealthy food and drink marketing than participants in higher income groups. Over 80% of young people who took part in the project agreed that food and drink marketing has a great influence on eating and drinking habits. Over 65% of participants in the project agreed that they wanted the government to take action and regulate the marketing they see online.
At the end of the project, we spoke to the teenage participants to get their perspective on online ads for junk food. You can watch the interviews and find out more about the project in the video below.
Let's hear from the teenagers
Senior Analyst, A Healthy Lives mission
Lucy is an Senior Analyst on the 'A Healthy Lives' mission team.
Mission Manager – A Healthy Life mission
Tara joined Nesta in January 2018 and is working in the social health team on a range of projects.
Designer, A Healthy Life mission
Geetika is a design practitioner who believes in an interdisciplinary and collaborative approach to design.
Campaigns Manager, Communications
Cara is the Campaigns Manager for Nesta's Communications team
Nesta is an innovation foundation. For us, innovation means turning bold ideas into reality and changing lives for the better. We use our expertise, skills and funding in areas where there are big challenges facing society.


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