Is That App Making Your Child Hungry?

Over the past five to 10 years, food companies have been pressured both by the public and government agencies to decrease the number of ads for unhealthy foods directed at children on TV and the Internet. Rising rates of childhood obesity fueled these concerns about aiming junk food ads at young children.

Then, in 2006, food companies committed themselves to trying to sponsor more ads promoting healthier foods and eating habits to children. That was great news.

But now—surprise!—the food companies have found a new way to market unhealthy products to children—through games that can be played on mobile devices and that feature—you guessed it—certain food products, usually snacks, candy, or sugary drinks.

I guess we shouldn’t be surprised, really—after all, how is a candy company supposed to market their products as healthy? It’s like trying to sell a square as a circle.

So now these games are being downloaded by millions of kids with mobile devices, and they’re of course raising concerns. (I think, since these games are actually just advertisements, that I’m going to refer to them as “games.”) Typically, such “games” are built around a pretty simple concept with uncomplicated graphics, so that even a 4- or 5-year-old can manage them, and they feature a certain brand or brands of food.

Are these “games” harmful?

Depends on who you ask. Now that so many children have these small snack-food ads at their fingertips, often unbeknownst to their parents, it does beg the question: Who should be making the decision as to what our children are watching, playing, and…eating?

Certainly, not even the food companies are going to argue that such “games” are educational. And some parents feel that the stealth ads are harmless and provide some entertainment for their children. (Again, some would argue that the Internet offers loads of better ways to entertain one’s child.)

The big fear at the core of this debate is that such “games” will increase children’s consumption of unhealthy food products still more and thus worsen the obesity epidemic. The thought is that children will get these foods on the brain and ask for them in the grocery store. 

Some common sense

I’m going to play devil’s advocate here and argue that, since most children are not paying the grocery bills, parents should feel more than capable of saying “NO!” to requests for junk food. Furthermore, if you control the password for downloading applications on a mobile device, then you can very simply stop these apps from magically appearing unless you first approve them.

So, while the debate continues over who should do the regulating of what your child is exposed to on mobile devices, know that these “games” are just the latest scheme by food manufacturers to pipe advertising straight into young children. And please remember: If you don’t buy it, they won’t eat it!

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