Online Safety and Media Regulation: No Ads To Kids

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No ads to kids 

The Joint Oireachtas Committee on Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media this week published its report with recommendations on the General Scheme of the Online Safety and Media Regulation Bill (OSMR Bill). Alcohol Action Ireland applauds the work of the committee and welcomes the report and in particular its recommendation to protect children from harmful online advertising of alcohol. 

Specifically, the Committee recommended: a ban on advertising to children online, including, at the very minimum, advertisements of junk food, alcohol, high fat/salt/sugar (HFSS) foods, and gambling. 

 Alcohol is one of the most heavily marketed products on our shelves and young people are an important market for the alcohol industry.  

Comprehensive research now clearly tells us that alcohol marketing including advertising, sponsorship and other forms of promotion, increases the likelihood that adolescents will start to use alcohol, and to drink more if they are already using alcohol. 

In its report, the committee pointed to a number of rationales for having come to its conclusion regarding banning harmful advertising.  

It stated that the Ombudsman for Children’s Office (OCO) stated that children have a right to protection from material that is potentially harmful to their wellbeing, and such material could include advertising and commercial exploitation of children.  

The report also notes the contribution of UCC Law Professor – and the State’s rapporteur on child protection – Conor O’Mahony who pointed to the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), new General Comment pertaining to the rights of the child in relation to the digital environment: it states that “States parties should prohibit by law the profiling or targeting of children of any age for commercial purposes on the basis of a digital record of their actual or inferred characteristics, including group or collective data, targeting by association or affinity”. 

This point was also raised by AAI in its written submission on the General Scheme of the Bill. As per the new General Comment, Ireland will have increased obligations regarding digital rights. The UNCRC is urging states to take a vigorous stance against the exposure of children to digital marketing of unhealthy products, such as alcohol and junk foods and recommends that state parties have appropriate independent institutions to monitor children’s rights in the digital environment. 

This issue is all the more pressing given a stark warning from a World Health Organization report, which noted that: ”Alcohol marketing is adapting to new realities faster than current legal regulations across the Region, with industry using opportunities offered by digital platforms to sell their products in a largely unregulated market” and comments on “the targeting of consumers including children and adolescents to promote drinking. 

While we do not know if the recommendations in this report regarding online safety will be taken on board, meanwhile offline, we still have not managed to protect children from insidious marketing practices.  

A recent report from AAI in partnership with the Institute of Alcohol Studies (London) and Scottish Health Action on Alcohol Problems – SHAAP, measured the frequency of viewer’s exposure to alcohol promotion during a typical match broadcast. During the broadcast of Ireland’s home match against Wales, viewers were targeted with 754 alcohol promotion messages – one every 15 seconds; against Scotland it was 690 – one every 16 seconds – saturation marketing by any standard. 

 Meanwhile, the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland’s ‘Statutory Report on the Effect of the BAI Children’s Commercial Communications Code’, noted that in 2020 seven of the top ten TV programmes for Irish children, aged 4-17 years, were live sports broadcasts: GAA, Rugby and Soccer. The same report also found that Diageo was the number four advertiser to children. 

These are shocking statistics and reveal how measures aimed at protecting children that only curb advertising in children’s spaces or at children’s games, do not take into account the reality of where they are accessing their content – in the adult world.  

The upcoming commencement of Sections 15 and 16 of the Public Health Alcohol Act on 12 November 2021 will provide from some modest but welcome restrictions on alcohol advertising in sporting events and a ban on alcohol advertising and sponsorship of children’s events. However, important other measures in the Act such as statutory controls on the content of alcohol advertising (Section 13) and a broadcast watershed (Section 19) have no timeframe for implementation. As always, the question we ask is why wait and who benefits? And while we wait, who suffers?