Section five - Current regulations

5. Current regulations 

There are of course regulations and codes that govern media content aimed at children. Some, such as those governing broadcast and non-broadcast advertising, are statutory, whilst other forms of advertising, marketing and media content are self-regulated.

 Our research found that parents believe regulators have the greatest responsibility for the content and advertising that children are exposed to, followed by parents themselves, the companies that produce the advertising and the Government.

Which of the following, if any, should have responsibility for the content of media and advertising that your child is exposed to?

Regulatory bodies: 75%

Parents: 61%

Media companies: 59%

Government: 53%

Schools: 22%

The police: 11%

Parents also feel that regulatory bodies could do more to protect children from inappropriate content in films, video games and on television.

Regulatory bodies responsible for rating films and video games do not do enough to protect children

Agree: 52%

Disagree: 29%

Don’t know: 19%

TV programmes that are inappropriate for children are often shown before the 9pm watershed

Agree: 67%

Disagree: 25%

Don’t know: 8%

Source: ComRes for Mothers’ Union



Broadcast and non-broadcast advertising

The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) is the UK’s independent watchdog of advertising across all media, including print, press, posters, television, radio, cinema, internet (banners and pop-ups etc), email and text, sales promotions and direct marketing. Its role is to ensure that adverts are ‘legal, decent, honest and truthful’ by applying the Advertising Codes and working with regulatory bodies such as Ofcom. In relation to children, advertising must not:

  • Take advantage of their natural credulity
  • Encourage pester power
  • Imply inferiority if they do not buy a product or service
  • Appeal to emotions such as fear or pity
  • Use ‘hard sell’ techniques
  • Understate the price
  • Portray them in a sexually provocative manner.


Advertisers must use licensed characters and celebrities popular with children with a due sense of responsibility. Additionally, high fat, sugar and salt (HFSS) foods are not be permitted to be advertised on children’s channels or in and around programmes made for children.

Commercial radio stations also have to comply with the British Committee of Advertising Practice (BCAP) Radio Advertising Standards Code, which requires advance central clearance of ‘special categories’ of advertisement and sponsorship credits. All adverts aimed at children must pass through central clearance, and to pass must comply with the regulations above.


Advertising in magazines is also governed by the ASA, with guidelines stating particular care must be taken when marketing to or depicting children. The sexual content of teen magazines is self-regulated through the Teenage Magazine Arbitration Panel (TMAP), which aims to ensure ‘that the sexual content of teenage magazines is presented in a responsible and appropriate manner’ for magazines where 25% or more of the readers are girls below the age of 15. Their guidelines state that:

  • Readers be encouraged to take a responsible attitude to sex and contraception
  • Safer sex be highlighted and encouraged wherever relevant
  • Under-age sex or sexual abuse be clearly stated as illegal
  • Readers be encouraged to seek support from parents or other responsible adults wherever relevant
  • The emotional consequences of sexual activity be highlighted where relevant.


Additionally, publishers should advise distributors and retailers of the appropriate display category of their magazines and ensure that displays of magazines reflect the perceived age of purchasers. 

Computer games

The Pan-European Game Information (PEGI) age rating system was created by the Interactive Software Federation of Europe in 2003. It is now the sole classification system for computer games in the UK and is also used throughout most of Europe. Any disagreement with the rating of a game can be taken to an independent Complaints Board, which makes the final decision about an age rating. PEGI S.A. (the body that manages the PEGI system) also monitors games’ advertisements to ensure that they comply with the age rating system and in 2010 found that 83.2% of advertisements across Europe were compliant. Online advertising was more likely to be non-compliant.[1]



The Broadcasting Authority of Ireland is the independent regulator for radio and television broadcasters in Ireland. Its scope includes the Children’s Commercial Communications Code, which governs any advertising and commercial promotion aimed at, or that might be of interest to, children. Children’s commercial communications must not:

  • Cause harm of any sort to children
  • Take advantage of their natural credulity
  • Encourage pester power
  • Imply that owning a product or using a service will make a child superior
  • Portray children in a sexually provocative manner or provoke anxiety in children over their bodily appearance
  • Encourage children to engage in anti-social behaviour
  • Include violence or scenes that will cause distress
  • Encourage an unhealthy lifestyle
  • Use celebrities or sports stars to promote food or drink products, unless part of a public health or education campaign.


Additionally, communications should: present only factual information about the product or service; protect children’s personal information; promote general safety and clearly separate adverts from programme content.[2]

There is a mixture of opinion within the marketing industry as to whether the commercialisation of childhood is an issue, and if so, how the industry should respond. Some believe that brands should be responsive to customers and remove from sale/advertising products that causes concern whilst others believe that independent regulators rather than public opinion should direct these decisions. Some retailers operate a voluntary code of practice – for example Co-op does not advertise food and drink products high in fat, sugar or salt during children’s television hours; and several advertising, marketing and sales bodies are signed up to the self-regulatory British Code of Advertising, Sales Promotion and Direct Marketing, which includes guidelines on advertising to children. It also appears that there is discontent on both sides as to how the government should act – parents and lobbying groups are anxious that the government should take further action, whilst some in the industry feel that lobby groups are setting the agenda and ‘winning’ on the back of a moral panic on several occasions.[3]

 Clearly there are guidelines that, if adhered to, can ensure responsible advertising to children – but it does rely on people to notice non-compliance and make the effort to complain. If, as parents feel, current regulations could do better, either there needs to be more rigorous enforcement or a change to the current guidelines.