Dr. Polacsek joined the University of New England faculty in 2009 where she is currently a professor of Public Health and Director of the Center for Excellence in Public Health. As principal investigator, she has maintained research funding through four grants from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and one grant-funded through the National Institute for Food and Agriculture. She has also served as co-investigator on other grants including several through the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Dr. Polacsek’s research currently focuses on digital food and beverage marketing to children at school as well as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) policy advances through the promotion of fruit and vegetable purchases using behavioral economics in the supermarket setting.
The Impact of Digital Marketing on Children’s Unhealthy Eating Habits
Digital marketing of unhealthy foods and beverages to children and adolescents on electronic devices such as computers, tablets, or phones, has been shown to undermine healthy eating. Expanded use of electronic devices and remote learning during the COVID-19 pandemic likely contributed to increased rates of childhood obesity, greatly impacted student learning, and exacerbated pre-existing racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic disparities. As schools continue using educational technology, policy interventions to limit digital food marketing in schools and on school-issued devices are needed. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) provides little guidance on how to address digital food marketing, and federal and state privacy protections for children is inadequate.
My colleagues and I recently conducted a study to highlight areas where state and local education authorities can intervene to reduce digital food marketing through their own policies. We highlight four areas for local or state policy intervention and provide model policy language for each area.
First, because increased exposure to food marketing increases unhealthy food intake in children, the study recommends filtering for inappropriate food and beverage content through the school network.
Second, because children have the fundamental right to access information free from economic exploitation, schools would benefit from adopting approved lists of digital instructional materials that exclude materials with unhealthy food marketing.
Third, because electronic device use during mealtimes fosters poor nutritional habits, restricting personal device use during the lunch period can support healthy eating behaviors.
And finally, because the use of social media increases exposure to powerful digital food marketing, schools should not require students or parents to use commercial social media for access to school-related information.