Although the studies found are scarce and the designs are diverse, significant outcomes can be found, such as the study carried out by Rummo et al. (7), which determined how many adolescents follow food/beverage brands on Instagram and Twitter. Additionally, the associations between marketing practices aimed to adolescents were examined. Differences were observed in the percentages of adolescents who followed brands of sugary drinks compared to brands of low-calorie drinks. The result was a higher percentage of teenagers following sugary drink brands versus low-calorie drink brands on Instagram. Authors such as Jiménez-Marín et al. (2020); Tatlow-Golden & Garde (2020) pointed out how the companies spend more in promoting sugary beverages instead of low-calorie ones. (3, 4) Hence, inevitably, the probability that children are exposed to this type of food is greater. For this reason, the high number of children that follow HFSS product brands should not be underestimated, since it corresponds to an important public health problem. There is a correlation between the consumption of this type of beverages with the onset of Type 2 diabetes mellitus and weight gain. (1, 6 7, 26)
Another study included in the review is that carried out by Freeman et al. (2014) analyzes 27 food and beverage Facebook pages (sugary beverages, ice cream, chocolate and fast food most popular in Australia.(11) This study identified generalized marketing techniques, often unique to social networks that could increase consumer interaction and engagement, and even facilitate the direct purchase of the product. The most common techniques were competitions based on user-generated content, interactive games and the use of apps. The study concludes that the use of these interactive and social aspects of Facebook to market these products is common, food brands capitalize on the social networks of the different users and expand the reach and personal relevance of their marketing messages. These results are complemented by Boelsen-Robinson et al. (2016), who performed a new media audit of for three food and beverage brands marketed in Australia and well known worldwide (McDonald’s, Coca-Cola and Cadbury Dairy Milk).(36) Here, promotional activities were found, which seemed to use a series of marketing strategies with the frequent use of an indirect association of products, participation techniques and branding. In addition, a strategic targeting of both children and adolescents was identified. From these results, it is inferred that brands are using engaging content through new media aimed at children and adolescents to promote HFSS products. In this sense, given the limitations of self-regulatory codes in the context of digital media, all strategies should be focused on reducing the exposure of children and adolescents to the marketing of HFSS products through these dissemination channels. The conclusions of these works are in line with what has been stated by Tatlow-Golden & Garde (2020), who raised the need to comprehensively address the protection of the rights of all children against harmful marketing. (4)
Regarding the response of adolescents, one of the studies compiled by Murphy et al. (2020) (35) proved the interactions in Facebook. Results showed that unhealthy foods ads evoked significantly more positive responses compared to healthy foods, in 5 of 6 measures. Adolescents were more likely to want to share unhealthy publications and rated their peers more positively when they had unhealthy publications in their networks. In addition, they remembered and recognized a greater number of unhealthy food brands and the interactions with peers, celebrities and companies were greater with unhealthy food advertising. The fact that adolescents are more likely to remember unhealthy food is a finding also described in a recent review published by Kucharczuk et al. (2022). (30) These results are These results are also related to those found by Thaichon & Quach (2016) (37), who performed an interview with quantitative approach to 30 Australian children who used social networks and their parents. Among the results found, it is highlighted that fast food ads on social networking sites could manipulate the young audience in terms of purchase probability, opinions on fast food and feeding habits. A worrying element was also evidenced: group pressure as an important element of online communications through social networks. Thus, by having ads that create interaction with a group of young consumers, companies can create a sense of socialization and associate their product with a community.
In the document Tackling food marketing to children in a digital world: trans-disciplinary perspectives published by the HO, there is a reference to the importance of reducing the exposure of children and adolescents to all forms of HFSS food marketing, focusing on digital media, mentioning that the advertising in these media is increasing. Furthermore, the report points out that brands and marketers are not only remarkably successful, but also amplify the effects of marketing HFSS food. (9) This is consistent with what was posted on the Facebook page stating that social media marketing amplifies the effects of broadcast marketing, increasing target audience reach, ad memorability, brand bonding, and likability to a greater extent. than television alone. (42)
On the other hand, it should not be forgotten that, compared to conventional advertising, commercial communication in the digital context is more subtle and creative, which increases the capacity for persuasion and the difficulty of detecting its commercial nature, especially for adolescents. (3, 12) In addition, they are being offered attractive “information” about an aspect that directly concerns their health: food. In this sense, the responsibility of the parents should also be appealed to. It is necessary that they know the digital environment that surrounds their children; since most of them are not aware of the effects of advertising in a generic way, and of food, specifically, on social networks. This becomes relevant since accompanying and guiding children in the formation of healthy eating habits is not only a search for a solution to malnutrition due to excess, but also a method to achieve a healthier society.
Regarding the regulation, of the four countries analyzed all have self-regulation, though only the US and Ireland have legislation about on food communication aimed at children. On the other hand, Australia only has legislation related to open television. Thus, following Tatlow-Golden & Garde, 2020 (4) y Sacks & Looi, 2020 (16) it can be observed how the predominant path is that of the self-regulation. However, the analysis indicates how, with the exception of the US and Ireland, no express mention is made on platforms such as social networks in which food brands exert increasing pressure. (14, 43) Therefore, they are firmly entrenched among the media diet of children and adolescents.(16) It is observed how the regulation is focused on conventional media or in the advertising communication without specifying the channels and formats of the digital context. Furthermore, there is a cleat lack of consensus about should be protected when referring to minors, because depending on the country, there are variations in the age ranges.
There are already authors who highlight the inefficacy of the self-regulation (44), because the regulation is rather limited to television advertising and the marketers shift their investments to other platforms. Consequently, HFSS food marketing restrictions therefore need to implement policies to protect online advertising need to be implemented. (45)
This focus on conventional media is also evident in the academic studies reviewed on the binomial food advertising aimed at children and minors. The research is focused on television versus the Internet, with no studies specifically focused on social networks having been detected. (29)
The inappropriate use of the “marketing” concept has also been accepted, since the studies are referred to it to mention advertising. However, marketing assits to much more: promotion, product, distribution and price. Without going any further, when making the search equations, although our focus was advertising, we had to add the marketing item when we detected that many of the studies of interest use both terms interchangeably. However, this terminological problem in the mention used in the normative texts analyzed, in which there is a consensus on the term referred on the regulations: advertising or commercial communication. It is important to notice that marketing and advertising are two different terms, with advertising being a part of the former. Failure to establish this clarity can cause difficulties in determining both the object of study and the corresponding regulations.
The present review presents a distinct paucity of studies on the subject. Among the most relevant results, the potential influence of social networks on the consumption patterns of children stands out, and the predominance of undesirable food products in their diet.
On the other hand, it can be observed that regulations which standardize the advertising of food/beverage aimed at children through social networks is practically inexistent. To this fact, the aggravating factor that various authors point out must be added: the current self-regulatory measures are not sufficient.
These results should encourage the authorities to promote food policies aimed at caring for the health of minors, who are currently deliberately exposed to advertising unhealthy or rather harmful food and beverages that only contribute to worsening their feeding habits. Actions based on promoting healthy habits among children and adolescents should also be implemented. In addition, efforts must be redoubled both in the proliferation of more rigid regulatory measures regarding the dissemination of food advertising, especially less healthy ones; as well as seeking more decisive sanctions that make brands understand their responsibility with respect to the media and food diet of a vulnerable public.