Should I worry about junk food ads on kids' websites?

michaelrich_small1-198x300Media expert Michael Rich, MD, MPH, director of the Center on Media and Child Health at Children’s Hospital Boston, answers your questions about media use. Last week, he discussed the effect of movies on babies.

Here’s this week’s question:

Q: My 7-year-old son is extremely good at navigating the Internet. In fact, he’s taught me almost everything I know about using the Web. I have software that blocks him from everything except kid sites like PBS, Nickelodeon, Disney, and the Cartoon Network, where he has spent a lot of time and they seem harmless enough, but recently I’ve been hearing about junk food ads on websites. I don’t think he looks at them, but I’m wondering whether that’s a problem anyway. Am I missing something?
Websurfing in Washington, DC

A: Dear Websurfing,

Your impulses with regard to the Internet are right on. The Internet is a place where your son can both learn a great deal and become very technologically skilled but it’s also possible and likely that he’ll be exposed to material that is not optimal for him. In an era when kids are digital natives and parents are digital immigrants, your question is extremely common.

The sites you’re allowing him to access probably won’t expose him to overt violence or sex, and that is a positive thing. But remember that pre-selecting sites isn’t enough to teach him to use media critically.  Like pretty much everything else on the Web, even kid-oriented sites exist to attract users, build brand loyalty, and/or attract money to their enterprises. For that reason, it is important that your son learn to think critically about all media, even those that seem harmless.

Just recently, researchers looked at the sites most used by kids, and they found that only 5 of the 77 advertised food products were things that kids should be encouraged to eat. The vast majority touted high-calorie, low-nutritional-value foods, such as candy, cookies, and sugared cereal. And even though your son may not be paying specific attention to those ads, there is evidence that people exposed to online advertising think favorably about advertised brands, even if they don’t remember seeing or paying attention to the advertising. Therefore, the advertising he is exposed to is likely to affect him whether he thinks it does or not.

To help reduce the effects of junk food advertising on your son, help him understand that he is being aggressively pursued as a consumer of products that aren’t best for him. Point out ads, and ask him questions about them, like what it’s for, who it’s for, and why the people who created the ad created it (e.g., to keep him healthy and happy?). Doing this will help him build the skills he needs to critically view and discard the messages he’s receiving from these junk food ads, and that can help him get the most benefit and least harm from his experience on the web.

Enjoy your media and use them wisely,
The Mediatrician

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