By Dr Mimi Tatlow-Golden, Senior Lecturer in Developmental Psychology and Childhood, The Open University

The UK Government has announced plans to significantly restrict online advertising of less healthy food and drinks. A ban on some adverts for certain foods high in fat, sugar and salt (HFSS) will be brought in by the end of 2022.

This is a proportionate move long-awaited by doctors, experts and heath organisations, given that exposure to junk food marketing influences what and how much children eat.

Yet sectors of the food and advertising industries have mounted an extensive public and private lobbying campaign seeking to undermine the government’s plans.

One tactic they are deploying is to offer up an alternative proposal – that mostly relies on implementing the current self-regulation approach. Here are three reasons why that’s a bad idea.

  1. It turns out they could have been doing this all along

Much of what is being proposed is more enforcement and monitoring of the existing CAP code. So, the advertising industry has outed themselves as not working hard to stick to the rules up to now.

If the industry can use tech to ensure children aren’t seeing HFSS ads – why on earth haven’t they done this before? Essentially, they are proposing to implement weak rules that they have been allowing companies to break for years. The Government has been signaling its concern about children’s exposure to junk food advertising online since 2018 (and campaigners for long before that). In the meantime, children have been bombarded with junk food adverts, to the tune of 15 billion every year. Regulatory ASA body were well aware of the problem with their own research highlighting a total lack of compliance of the already weak rules.

This is not an effective way to protect children from the flood of junk food adverts they are exposed to online.

  1. The ad industry plans are based on old regulations that don’t solve the problem

The ad industry proposal builds on an existing system that’s flawed and unfit for purpose.

It plans to continue to block sites that are aimed at children or likely to be ‘of particular appeal’ to children. Sounds good? It really isn’t. That’s because it measures this by the proportion of children in the audience. So even if millions of children are seeing something, unless they are over 25% of that online audience, the rules don’t apply. For example, a YouTube vlogger could have an audience of 10 million. Unless more than 2.5 million are under 16 they could still freely advertise junk food. As adults outnumber children in the UK by more than 5 to 1, this means a lot of online content popular with both adults and children – such as football, music, celebrity, gaming, funny videos – would continue to be excluded from the rules.

In addition, the new enforcement proposes to rely less on declared age (understandably, as the gaping holes in this have long been known) – instead focusing more on inferring the age of an internet user based on their online behaviour. This opens up another can of worms: children and young people’s privacy.

  1. Privacy: profiling children more to serve unhealthy ads?

Changing existing systems to infer internet users’ ages leads to more profiling of children. Do we really want to invade children’s privacy for the sake of serving adverts high in fat, sugar and salt?

This focus on inferring age is increasingly at odds with national and international regulations, recommendations and declarations stating that children deserve particular privacy protections online. The GDPR, the UK’s 2020 Age-Appropriate Design Code along with the United Nations General Comment no.25 on Children’s Rights in Relation to the Digital Environment (2021) are all based on the fundamental premise that children’s data should not be processed except where absolutely necessary, and that commercial profiling should not be one of those reasons. Whether this inferring is done online across sites, or within a device (as newer methods are doing), neither is acceptable.

Finally: This proposed approach tells us a lot about the effectiveness of a self-regulation approach – which leaves the advertising industry to set and mark its own homework. We now know that it’s been doing so shoddily for years, even according to the lax standards they set.

One in three children now leave primary school with a weight classed as overweight or obese. While food marketing is one of a number of factors that drive excess weight, population measures such as restricting what advertising can be shown is more equitable, low agency intervention that will bring benefits to adverts and children and free up space for healthier products to be advertised.

Ironically, despite the industry’s protestations, this ban is only a baseline. Lots of marketing will continue – whether it’s brand marketing, or sports sponsorship, for example. But that’s a battle for another day.

When it comes to protecting children from junk food adverts online, the foxes have been in charge of the chicken coop for too long. We need robust new regulations that work.