Study by UNE's Michele Polacsek finds schools should minimize food and beverage marketing on educational platforms

UNE's Michele Polacsek poses for a photo at her home
Michele Polacsek, Ph.D., M.H.S.

Michele Polacsek Ph.D., M.H.S., professor of public health and director of the UNE Center for Excellence in Public Health (CEPH), recently acted as principal investigator on a study funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to limit harmful digital food and beverage marketing to students.

Polacsek is the senior author on a newly released report of the findings, and UNE College of Osteopathic Medicine (UNE COM) student Summer Moukalled (D.O., ’25) also contributed to the report.

According to Polacsek, pervasive digital marketing of unhealthy foods and beverages to children and adolescents undermines healthy eating. The expanded use of electronic devices for remote learning during the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated student exposure to ads for unhealthy foods — such as fast foods, candies, and sugary sodas and cereals — on educational platforms.

“The COVID-19 pandemic forced schools to close and sent students home to learn through school issued devices, which greatly increased students’ screen time and exposure to unhealthy food and beverage marketing online,” Polacsek stated. “So, we developed recommendations for local or state education authorities to reduce the digital food and beverage marketing to which students are exposed.”

Polacsek said that, as schools continue using educational technology, policy interventions are needed to limit digital food marketing in schools and on school-issued devices. The report highlights four areas in which state and local education authorities can intervene through their own policies and provides model policy language for each of the following:

  1. Content filtering on school networks and on school-issued devices
  2. Digital instructional materials
  3. Student-owned devices
  4. Use of social media to communicate with parents and students

The areas call for school districts to expand upon existing content filtering and privacy policies, as well as usage policies for school-issued devices, to combat digital food and beverage marketing.

Specifically, the recommendations are to filter food-related content and utilize robust ad-blocking technology on school networks and all school-issued devices; prohibit the use of digital instructional materials with food and beverage marketing and minimize collection of student data through a robust student privacy policy; expand student-owned device usage policies to prohibit use during lunch; and communicate school-related and student activity-related information to parents and students on school-dedicated platforms.

Polacsek has previously written about distance learning’s effects on students’ nutrition, having co-authored a 2020 op-ed to the Portland Press Herald’s Sunday edition, the Maine Sunday Telegram, about the matter.

“The COVID-19 crisis has made clear that our diets are putting us in danger,” Polacsek wrote in collaboration with Julia McCarthy, J.D., then the interim deputy director of the Tisch Center for Food, Education, and Policy at Columbia University. “Food marketing not only undermines educational messages but also can create inequitable learning environments and exacerbate racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic disparities in health.”

The authors then argued that food marketers should adhere to the same standards of advertising on digital platforms that they are legally required to for advertising in schools: if it is unhealthy, it cannot be advertised in the educational space.

Polacsek’s latest study and report, “Reducing Student Exposure to Digital Food and Beverage Marketing: Policy and Practice Recommendations,” was produced with $50,000 in grant funding from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.