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'Unrelenting' fast-food ads using privacy 'loopholes' to target children: study

Three children playing on mobile devices. (Pexels/ Jessica Lewis) Three children playing on mobile devices. (Pexels/ Jessica Lewis)

"Unrelenting" fast food ads are targeting Canadian children with data collected from apps, a new study shows.

The first-of-its-kind research by the University of Ottawa published on Tuesday has found there is limited understanding of what data is being collected from children on apps.

According to the study, privacy "loopholes" have allowed marketing agencies to target children with junk food ads.

"What's most striking about the results is just how little we know about what data these food companies collect on our children and what they plan to do with it," Monique Potvin Kent, associate professor at the University of Ottawa and lead author of the study, said in a press release.

This comes just as Health Canada said it would draft new regulations to address this issue by winter 2024, the release says. It follows a recommendation in July from the World Health Organization that countries around the world should adopt rules to protect children from unhealthy food and beverage marketing.

Researchers took privacy policies and terms of service from 26 Canadian fast food and dine-in restaurant apps.

Five of the apps were studied in-depth by recruiting kids ages nine to 12 to order food and later asking their guardians to make a request to the company about the data collected from the child.

Of the guardians and children who participated (11) less than half of restaurants (46 per cent) provided the information to the parents "leaving a black hole" in what data is being collected on children and how marketers intend to use it.

"Data is invaluable to marketers looking to sway customers with targeted ads," Kent said. "Kids are essentially sitting ducks given the amount of time they spend online."

Funded by the Heart & Stroke, the study highlights a need for more rules on marketing to children, the press release says.               

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