The Internet games that many food manufacturers use to market their products can influence children's snack choices -- for better or worse, a small study suggests.
Companies commonly use online video games known as "advergames" to boost traffic to their Web sites and promote their brands. Some health experts have raised concerns that games from snack-food manufacturers could encourage kids to eat more junk foods.
Advergames sway kids choices
In the new study, researchers at Georgetown University in Washington, DC, found that playing an advergame did indeed sway children's snack choices immediately afterward.
But it helped them make healthy choices just as easily as it did unhealthy ones.
When the researchers manipulated the game to focus on cookies, chips and soda, children were likely to want those same foods when offered a post-game snack. But when the game focused on fruit and orange juice, kids generally wanted to snack on those foods afterward.
The findings "suggest that concerns about online advergames that market unhealthy foods are justified," Drs Tiffany A Pempek and Sandra L Calvert report in the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine.
Can have healthy outcome
On the flip side, they write, advergames could also be used to encourage children to snack smart.
"This kind of social marketing approach could tip the scales toward the selection of higher-quality snacks, thereby helping to curb the obesity epidemic," the researchers write.
The study included 30 low-income African-American children between the ages of 9 and 10. Each child was randomly assigned to one of three groups: a group that played the healthy-snack advergame before being offered a snack; a group that played the less-healthy version before snack time; or a "control" group that played an advergame after snack time.
Both game versions were Pac-Man-style games that awarded players points for gobbling up food. In the healthy version, those foods were bananas, apples, carrots and orange juice; the less-healthy game featured cookies, candy bars, potato chips and soda.
Use games to promote healthier choices
All of the children were offered a snack and could choose a banana, chips, soda or orange juice. In general, the researchers found, kids opted for healthy foods after playing the healthy-food advergame, and junk food after playing the chip-and-cookie version.
"Our results," Pempek and Calvert write, "suggest that not only is there a market for healthier foods and beverages, but advergames can be used to promote healthier choices and eating patterns, thereby tipping the balance toward a healthier society." -(Reuters Health, July 2009).
Source: Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, July 2009.