Food company computer games increase junk food consumption

Despite food company pledges to reduce marketing of unhealthy products to children, a Yale University study finds that children are disproportionately targeted by food company websites using branded computer games, known as advergames. Researchers also found that playing these games increases children’s consumption of junk food. The study is published online in the Journal of Children and Media.

Researchers from the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity conducted a two-tiered study to determine how many young people visit advergame websites and how much time they spend there; whether exposure to advergames for unhealthy products contributes to increased consumption of unhealthy food; and whether advergames that promote nutritious foods can positively influence children’s healthy food consumption.

In the first study, the team utilized syndicated Internet usage data from comScore to examine the number and age of visitors to food company websites and the relative usage of sites that contained advergames. The study found that over one million children visit food company advergame sites every month and that they spend up to one hour per month on some sites. The majority of advergame sites promote candy, high-sugar cereals, and fast food, and many feature products that food companies have pledged they will not market to children. Young people were significantly more engaged in these sites compared with other food company-sponsored websites, according to the study.

The second study examined 152 children and measured how much snack food they consumed after playing advergames that featured unhealthy or healthy food, compared with playing computer games that did not focus on food. Advergames that promoted junk food increased the children’s consumption of unhealthy snack foods by 56 percent compared to playing the healthy games, and 16 percent more than playing the control games. In addition, children who played unhealthy advergames consumed one-third fewer fruits and vegetables than children who played the control and healthy games. Children who previously played advergames were affected the most, and both older and younger children were similarly affected. Advergames encouraging healthy eating did increase fruit and vegetable consumption, but the researchers found only one advergame website that promoted primarily healthy foods.

According to the researchers, several companies in the United States have pledged to shift their child-targeted advertising to “better-for-you” foods through the voluntary Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative sponsored by the Council of Better Business Bureaus. However, not one advergame in this analysis met the council’s criteria for child-directed advertising.

“While research has shown a decline in television food advertisements targeted to children, companies are introducing new and sophisticated forms of marketing such as advergames that allow children to engage in advertising content for unlimited amounts of time,” says author Jennifer Harris, the Rudd Center’s director of marketing initiatives.

The researchers assert that this study showing the reach and impact of advergames on children’s eating behaviors demonstrates the need for substantial reductions in the use of advergames to promote unhealthy food to children.