On Friday, experts at the World Health Organization (WHO) said that the children in Europe are overwhelmed with hidden digital advertising and marketing that promotes fatty, sugary, salty foods that are bad for their growing bodies and, more importantly, adding to the region’s growing obesity problem.
Researchers involved with this study, then, are now calling for policymakers to add more regulation that will protect children from digital advertising messages—including ads on networking sites as well as “advergames” (marketing disguised as a game)–and social media.
WHO regional director of Europe, Zsuzsanna Jakeb explains, “Our governments have given the prevention of childhood obesity the highest political priority, (yet) we consistently find that children – our most vulnerable group – are exposed to countless numbers of hidden digital marketing techniques promoting foods high in fat, sugar and salt.”
She also goes on to say that without the implementation of effective regulation over digital media, children will be more and more vulnerable to persuasive marketing individually tailored to them, advertising of which parents may not have any awareness.
The WHO notes, “Often, parents do not see the same advertisements, nor do they observe the online activities of their children; many therefore underestimate the scale of the problem.”
Approximately two-thirds of all children in European countries who are overweight by the time they reach puberty will remain so through early adulthood. Furthermore, roughly 25 percent of school age children in Europe are already overweight or obese. Overweight and obese children are more likely to not only stay obese as they get older, but are also, of course, more likely to develop the chronic illnesses associated with obesity—like cancer, diabetes, and heart disease and cancer—and are more vulnerable at a younger age.
Indeed, WHO Europe chronic disease and health promotion expert, Gauden Galea, reports that allowing for advertisers—and the food industry—to target children in this way could have “huge health and economic consequences” further down the road.
The WHO Europe report, then, explains that because there is very little effective regulation or control over digital marketing (if there is any at all) children are often—and consistently—exposed to very powerful and specifically targeted online marketing.
The report details that digital marketing has the ability to simultaneously engage children in emotional, entertaining experiences that encourages them, also, to share these experiences with their friends. The WHO report describes this as “a dubious cocktail when used to promote unhealthy foods.”