Eyeing off our junk food habits

 

Deakin University scientists will use revolutionary eye-tracking devices to work out how and why junk food commercials appeal to kids, in the hope of understanding how cancer-causing products are marketed to children.

In a world-first research program, scientists will use iPupilX eye-tracking technology developed for military use to examine the visual factors that cause children to take up harmful habits such as junk food, alcohol, and cigarettes.

Associate Professor Asim Bhatti, an expert in cognition and performance assessment at Deakin's Institute for Intelligent Systems Research and Innovation (IISRI), said the project was the first time scientists would be able measure how much kids pay attention to junk food advertising outside a laboratory setting.

Associate Professor Asim Bhatti and Quinn Squire wearing iPupilX eye tracking device to work out how and why junk food commercials appeal to kids. Picture: Donna Squire
Associate Professor Asim Bhatti and Quinn Squire wearing iPupilX eye tracking device to work out how and why junk food commercials appeal to kids. Picture: Donna Squire

"The significant benefit of eye-tracking technology is that we'll be able to see what's more catchy and engaging to children as they go about their normal day-to-day activities," Prof Bhatti said.

"The devices can be worn during normal activities and routines, and they detect when changes occur in a child's pupil, which indicates that they're paying attention and focused on something."

He said previous studies had been done in controlled experimental settings, which could affect concentration.

"Now we'll be able to get a true sense of the impact of junk food advertising on children as they go about their regular activities in a totally normal way," he said.

Prof Bhatti said the project's eye-tracking technology had been used by the military to assess soldiers in the field during training and deployment, to understand how they focused and concentrated on tasks and threats.

"It makes sense to adapt this technology to help fight the global obesity crisis, because the principle here is the same," he said. "If junk food and alcohol advertising are the threats, we want to know what our children are seeing - and what's attracting them to commercials that influence their health choices and threaten their long-term wellbeing."

The project is a collaboration between IISRI and Deakin's Global Obesity Centre, a World Health Organisation Collaborating Centre for Obesity Prevention based in the university's Institute for Health Transformation.

The Deakin-led project is supported by Cancer Council Victoria.

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Originally published as Eyeing off our junk food habits