Some kids can't get enough of online games where they can pretend to run a candy factory or decorate cakes. But children who play with these games may eat more, and eat more junk food, even if the game features fruit or other healthful choices, according to new research.
Food industry critics have long bemoaned the fact that many popular food games for computers and other devices are actually "advergames", created by food manufacturers to market their products. Some argue marketing junk food to kids is unethical, even if it's through tiny bits of entertainment software.
To find out if advergames affect how children eat, Dutch researchers had 8- to 10-year-olds play either a game that featured a popular brand of candy, or one that featured fruit. Another group of children played an online game involving a toy. All the games tested the children's memory skills. Afterwards, the children were offered bowls of jelly candy, chocolate, sliced bananas, and apples.
The researchers say they assumed that the children who played the fruit game would choose fruit. But boy, were they wrong. All the children who played a food-themed game ate more, and ate more candy, even if they played the fruit game.
"We were very surprised," Frans Folkford, a graduate student in communications at the University of Amsterdam who led the study, tells The Salt. The children who played food-themed games took in about twice as many calories as children who played a non-food game, or played no game at all. The work was published online in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.
Just looking at pictures of food is enough to make people want to eat, as any dieter can tell you. But food-themed games may be more persuasive, Folkford says, because children are actively engaged with them, and less likely to realize that the game is actually an advertisement.
Games may get children to eat more healthfully, but it's tricky, says Jennifer Harris, director of marketing initiatives at the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University. She found in a study she did last year that children who played an online game from the Dole fruit company did eat more fruit – but they also ate more overall. "A lot depends on the game and the actual messages in there," Harris says. "It's very complicated."
Over the past decade hundreds of food companies have launched online advergames aimed at children, Harris says, and millions of kids are playing them. Many mobile apps aimed at kids are also designed to market junk food to them. "Pay attention to what your kids are downloading," Harris says. "A lot of parents figure as long as it's free and it's listed as for children, they assume it's safe and not harmful. You really can't assume that."
It's harder to track children's use of advergame apps for mobile phones or tablets, she notes, but ones like "Cookie Dough Bites Factory" or "Candy Sports" often show up on lists of favorite downloads.
"The apps are made very appealing to deeply engage young users," says Jeffrey Chester, director of the Center for Digital Democracy, which lobbies on digital privacy. "They can be helpful, but they're also tiny spies lurking on your cellphone or other devices to market to you."
Food and beverage marketers have dramatically increased their spending on online and mobile marketing to kids and teens, according to a Federal Trade Commission report released last month.