Ofcom recently published a comprehensive report on attitudes, understanding and media use of children aged 5-15 years. It’s a timely publication, as the Government prepares to consult on the introduction of measures to reduce children’s exposure to junk food adverts – which evidence shows clearly influence unhealthy food choices.

Currently, regulations to protect children from seeing junk food adverts only applies to TV and online content that is made specifically for children, or when children are over-represented in the audience – i.e. there is a particularly high number of children compared to adults.

The report exposes the gap between children’s media consumption and the regulation that is meant to protect them in several ways:

  • As in previous years, the programmes most watched by children aren’t ‘children’s TV shows’ but entertainment programmes shown in the prime-time family viewing slot of 6-9pm. In 2017, four out of the five most popular shows with kids (shown on commercial channels) are peak time entertainment shows including ‘Britain’s Got Talent’, ‘The Voice’, ‘Saturday Night Takeaway’, and ‘Bake Off.’ Because these shows also attract high adult audiences, meaning children are not over-represented in the audience compared to adults, junk food advert restrictions don’t apply. And our own research shows junk food adverts make up nearly 60% of food and drink adverts shown during these types of shows.


  • YouTube is the online destination of choice for children, with 8 in 10 children aged 4-15 using it. Funny videos, music videos, vloggers and game tutorials are popular with children all ages. The appeal of this type of content is not limited to children, meaning junk food advert restrictions are unlikely to apply. In fact YouTube’s own rules prevent children under 13 from signing up for an account, meaning the platform has no way of knowing who is watching its content, other than making inferences from the type of content they are interested in. This leaves children wide open to being exposed to junk food adverts online.


  • Children aged 5-15 are now spending more time online than watching TV – 15 minutes and 13 hours per week respectively, along with 14.5 hours on their mobiles and almost 11 hours playing games. It’s very likely that they are doing more than one of these activities at once. This means regulation to protect them needs to be comprehensive and consistent and offer the same level of protection across all the media channels used by children.

Junk food advertising works. This is why the top spending crisp, confectionery and sugary drinks brands put over £143 million a year into advertising their products.

With one in three children leaving primary school with a weight classified as overweight or obese, it’s clear we need a multi-pronged approach that transforms our current obesogenic environment into a health promoting one. A comprehensive approach to restricting children’s exposure to junk food adverts with a 9pm watershed on TV and similarly strong measures online and across other media channels is a very good place to start and will only be good news for the future health of our next generation.