Most of the foods marketed through "advergames," which are free online games that target children, have high levels of fat, sugar and salt, according to a new study conducted by Michigan State University researchers.
The findings are a double whammy for parents concerned about children's growing waistlines since the games, in addition to displacing a physical activity with a sedentary computer activity, also expose children to junk food brands in levels that could exceed TV commercials.
While there has been a heavy focus on TV commercials for junk food, similar advertisements in the form of free online computer games seem to be flying under the radar, study researcher Lorraine Weatherspoon, Ph.D., explained.
"I think that much of the focus has been on more direct advertising, especially television," wrote Weatherspoon in an email to The Huffington Post.
In fact, these advergames, which engage children over longer periods of time than a typical 30-second TV spot, could be even more effective than commercials at exposing young minds to brand names or types of food.
"Depending on the type of game, they are able to literally ... 'play' with food or receive extensive background brand exposure, increasing the propensity to select those types or particular brands of foods," in the future, Weatherspoon said.
Researchers analyzed 143 advergames (whittled down from a total of 475 sites) that children ages 2 to 11 visited from August 2009 to July 2010, and made a list of all the foods that were marketed through the games. They identified 439 different foods across 19 brands and then recorded each food's levels of total fat, saturated fat, added sugar, sodium and cholesterol. Researchers also categorized the foods into types: meals, snacks and beverages.
Researchers then compared the food's nutrition levels to recommendations set by nutrition authorities that include the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
Approximately 95 percent of the advergame meals and 78 percent of the snacks did not meet USDA and FDA recommendations for total fat. Nearly half of the snacks did not meet USDA and FDA's saturated fat recommendations.
Only 13.4 percent of meals and 3 percent of snacks met USDA's recommendations for added sugar (the FDA does not have added sugar recommendations), and only 3 to 5 percent of meals met FDA and USDA's sodium recommendations.
However, all but one meal met the FDA's recommendations for cholesterol, while 90 percent met the USDA's recommendations. All the snacks met USDA and FDA cholesterol recommendations.
Yalda T. Uhls, Ph.D., a researcher at UCLA's Children's Digital Media Center and the regional director of the non-profit advocacy group Common Sense Media, pointed out that parents might not even be aware of the games analyzed in Weatherspoon's study.
"Advergames are of particular concern because they are often embedded in the gameplay, which the child can play on a small device not in the parent's presence," Uhls wrote in an email to HuffPost. "They may not be aware of the messages targeted to their children."
"I would say that this type of advertising is more 'subtle' and not as easily recognized by parents or the general public," Weatherspoon said. "There are currently no specific laws to the best of my knowledge which focus on this type of advertising specifically."
Toy promotions at fast food restaurants work in a similar way. Children may at first be more attracted to the game than the advertised food, but the point at which a child's desire for the food becomes wrapped up in the game is difficult to pinpoint, she pointed out. "I would say the amount of time spent playing the game is an important consideration for the 'blurring effect,'" Weatherspoon said. "This type of marketing in our technology-savvy, young society is extremely powerful in determining food choices."
If the advergames don't change, children will lose, Weatherspoon noted: "If the [game's] primary focus is 'less healthful' options ... the childhood obesity crisis, as well as other co-morbidities such as Type 2 diabetes, heart disease and hypertension, are being fueled by this type of marketing."
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