Facebook has defended its targeting practices after Bite Back 2030, a youth-led campaign group, presented evidence to MPs on the extent to which teens and even younger children are exposed to advertising for foods high in fat, salt and sugar.
A report from Bite Back 2030, published yesterday (Monday), claims that young people in the UK are exposed to a total of 15 billion HFSS ads per year – that is equivalent to almost 1,000 for each person under 18.
Bite Back 2030 said that those from low-income communities are even more exposed to such marketing online. It claimed that the "bombardment of junk-food adverts is a disaster for young people’s health" and that "the world of online junk-food marketing is secretive, hidden and unaccountable".
The report also claimed that Facebook/Instagram had marked 280,000 people aged 13 to 17 as having an interest in fast food – making them more likely to be targeted with fast-food advertising without their explicit consent.
A spokesperson at Facebook said: “We continue to work closely with industry bodies, such as the IAB [Internet Advertising Bureau], AA [Advertising Association] and ISBA on the government's HFSS consultation.
"Advertisers use our targeting tools to serve their ads to age-appropriate audiences in line with their commitments under the CAP non-broadcast advertising code and interests do not override such targeting.”
The AA, meanwhile, reiterated its stance that a ban on advertising HFSS products on TV and online will be ineffective to counter rising levels of child obesity.
Stephen Woodford, chief executive of the AA, said: “Existing rules governing the advertising of food and drink high in fat, salt and sugar online and on TV are already among the strictest in the world and mean that children are exposed to very little of this type of advertising.”
The government is considering tough new restrictions on ads for HFSS products, including a 9pm TV ad watershed and a total ban on online ads. It launched a consultation in November 2020 on its proposal for a total online advertising ban for HFSS products – a move supported by Bite Back 2030.
The group's youth board is chaired by 16-year-old Dev Sharma, who said: “I feel like I’m being bombarded with junk-food ads on my phone and computer, and I’m pretty sure it’s getting worse.
"They are everywhere, popping up when we’re watching videos, when I’m gaming with friends. And we don’t have an escape, especially not at the moment when we are living on our screens.”
Another member of the campaign, 17-year-old Anisah Rahmen, said that her three-year-old sister with type 1 diabetes was also being exposed to HFSS ads.
"She watches YouTube videos that have amassed millions of views that show popular child influencers playing with McDonald’s toys and pretend to work at drive-throughs," Rahmen said. "I don’t feel her health is being protected. We need more regulations to protect her from this flood of advertising.”
The AA added: "According to the government’s own research, the total online ban will reduce a child’s calorie intake by just 2.84 calories per day, while the pre-9pm TV ban will lower it by 1.7 calories a day. Both are negligible amounts."