Belfast Telegraph

Our children need protected from dangers of online ads

By Jane Merrick

Earlier this week I heard the author Suki Kim describe her six months teaching at a boys' school in North Korea - which she has written about in her latest book, Without You There Is No Us. It was striking - even by the standards of the most secretive nation in the world - to hear her say that her pupils did not even know the internet existed.

As someone who is old enough to have got through school without knowing what a website was, I can remember a time before the internet. It is easy to be nostalgic for an era when knowledge came only through teachers and textbooks, and entertainment only through TV, games and toys.

I wouldn't want to return to that. But, as a parent, I am fearful of the internet free-for-all that my daughter could be exposed to as she grows up. An investigation this week revealed that YouTube is showing adverts for junk food before the extraordinarily popular vlogs by Zoella and others - although the vloggers themselves may have no knowledge of the type of ad shown.

These 30-second ads for things like Haribo and Coca-Cola would be banned from appearing alongside terrestrial children's television programmes under Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) Code, but the rules on scheduling apply to broadcast, not online ads. Jason Halford, a health behaviour expert at the University of Liverpool, says: "Advertising does affect children in terms of what they purchase and reinforcing the brand. But even beyond brand, our research has found it makes them grab the nearest sugary thing around, irrespective of their appetite."

We as a society are addicted to sugar, and food companies know it. With my own four-year-old daughter, I have already weakened in the face of pressure from her for chocolate. This Easter weekend I will indulge her with chocolate eggs. I know this is my responsibility, my fault. Yet the internet is under our skin and so too is our addiction to high-reward junk food.

I let my daughter watch YouTube - under my guidance, of course - for things like dinosaur songs and episodes of her favourite programmes, without even thinking about the adverts that are shown. As a parent, it is easy to sleepwalk into habits like letting children have a treat here and there, so do we even notice when they are watching adverts for Haribo?

It is not all that surprising that a study by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and the UCL Institute of Child Health found that nearly a third of parents underestimate the weight of their child, with only a tiny fraction acknowledging it when they are obese. More and more of us are sleepwalking into this problem: more than a third of children are classed as either overweight or obese by the time they leave primary school.

Parents must take responsibility for their children's health and wellbeing. It is up to us to restrict their consumption of cakes and chocolate bars, just as we can restrict how much time our children spend on the internet.

Parents just need a little help - and that means the food and drinks companies not being complicit in selling sugar to our kids when we least expect it. Children are more likely to watch programmes, clips and films on the internet than on TV. For today's youngsters, the internet is as authoritative as their parents, teachers and peers.

The ASA code applies to online ads, so shouldn't the rules on restricting advertising to the young be updated to take account of this dramatic shift in viewing habits?

Belfast Telegraph