Kids eat more calories when playing a computer game featuring advertisements for candy than when the game has ads for toys, according to a new study from the Netherlands.
Children with low self-control were especially vulnerable to cues from a candy-themed game and ate more sweets even when offered a reward not to eat, the researchers found.
“Impulsive children have insufficient inhibitory behavioral control, and food advertisers try to influence eating behavior, thereby making it more difficult for especially impulsive children to self-regulate their food intake,” Dr. Frans Folkvord told Reuters Health by email.
Since kids are not fully aware of the persuasive intent of food marketeers, it is very difficult for any child to be critical towards the advertisements, said Folkvord, of Radboud University Nijmegen, who led the study.
Past research has shown that food advertising influences how much children eat, but little is known about what makes an individual child susceptible, Folkvord and his colleagues write in the journal Pediatrics.
The researchers recruited kids between the ages of seven and 10 to play online games that had either a candy theme or a toy theme.
“We used an online memory game that is comparable to the advergames that are used by major food companies,” Folkvord said.
Kids played the simple memory ‘advergames’ on a computer. Sixteen cards marked with a candy or toy brand name and logo appeared face down. Two could be flipped over at once. On the other side, they displayed individual candies or toys. The object was to match pairs as quickly as possible.
For the study, researchers divided the 260 children from primary schools in the Netherlands into four groups. Two groups played the candy advergame while the two other groups played an advergame promoting a toy brand instead.
The kids played the games for five minutes in a room with two bowls of jelly candy and milk chocolate candy.
Researchers told one group playing each game that they could eat as much candy as they liked, and told the other group that they could eat the candy, but if they made it to the end without eating they would be rewarded.
Before the game-playing sessions, the researchers also had all the kids answer questions to gauge their level of impulsivity. Based on scores on that test, 39 percent of the children qualified as impulsive, according to Folkvord.
Overall, kids ate more calories when playing a game with a candy theme. But rewarding the kids for avoiding eating the candy in the room during the game sessions resulted in most eating fewer calories.
Children who played the candy game without the inhibition reward ate an average of 156 calories, for example, compared to 87 calories for kids who played the same game with the inhibition reward.
During the toy-themed game, kids without the inhibition reward ate 101 calories, compared to 33 calories when they had been offered the inhibition reward.
For certain more impulsive kids, however, the food cues in the candy game were stronger than the incentive not to eat. The more impulsive kids playing the candy game tended to eat the same amount of calories whether or not they had been offered the inhibition reward.
“Impulsive behavior is extremely common and it is believed to be genetic,” said Dr. Deborah A. Cohen of the RAND Corporation in Santa Monica, California.
Cohen studies how the social and physical environments influence health.
Impulsiveness tends to go hand in hand with making poor decisions, said Cohen, who was not involved in the new study.
“Most of the food companies have advergames on their websites,” she told Reuters Health by email. “Exposure depends upon how much time children have free computer access and also based upon their awareness of these games.”
“Children as old as 15 do not recognize that advergames are adverts,” Folkvord said. But parents can help train kids to recognize advertising and reduce their undesired effects, like overeating, he said.
“Parents should explain to their children why food companies advertise their products and brands, helping them to become more critical, and subsequently become less susceptible,” Folkvord said.
Even then, there is only so much that parents can do, Cohen said.
“Everyone is susceptible to advertising, even those who believe they aren’t,” she said. “Parents have a limited ability to protect their children, because they do not control advertising nor is it easy for them to limit exposure to advertising.”
Counter-advertising campaigns, like the ‘truth’ campaign against tobacco use, may be one way to inoculate kids against the persuasive power of food ads, she added.