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Tackling food marketing to children in a digital world: trans-disciplinary perspectives

Children’s rights, evidence of impact, methodological challenges, regulatory options and policy implications for the WHO European Region

There is unequivocal evidence that childhood obesity is influenced by marketing of foods and non-alcoholic beverages high in saturated fat, salt and/or free sugars (HFSS), and a core recommendation of the WHO Commission on Ending Childhood Obesity is to reduce children’s exposure to all such marketing. As a result, WHO has called on Member States to introduce restrictions on marketing of HFSS to children, covering all media, including digital, and to close any regulatory loopholes.

Children across Europe access digital media avidly, predominantly on mobile devices, generally favouring social media and video viewing sites for mixed audiences. Brands and marketers report that digital marketing (including for HFSS foods) amplifies advertising in traditional media, achieving greater ad attention and recall, greater brand awareness and more positive brand attitudes, greater intent to purchase and higher product sales. Digital platforms collect extensive personal data from Internet users to deliver behavioural advertising, specifying audiences with precision and targeting the most vulnerable, and there is little effective regulation to protect children from this practice. The aim of digital HFSS marketing is to engage children in emotional, entertaining experiences and to encourage them to share these experiences with their friends. The algorithms of the major platforms give preference to less overt, longer-viewed advertisements (ads), thus bypassing any media literacy children might have and amplifying the power of practices in traditional media.

The food, marketing and digital industries have access to extremely fine-grained analyses of children’s behaviour and exposure to HFSS, yet external researchers are excluded from these privately held insights, which increases the power imbalances between industry and public health. There is convincing evidence that HFSS marketing in traditional media has detrimental effects on children’s eating and eating-related behaviour, and early studies suggest that HFSS marketing in digital media has similar effects. Major methodological challenges remain for researchers, however, and much new transdisciplinary work is required to identify the full extent, nature and impact of digital HFSS marketing on children.

Existing regulations are markedly insufficient to address the challenges in this field. Regulations frequently apply to predigital media only, apply only to younger children and not to adolescents (failing to allow for adolescents’ vulnerability to HFSS advertising) or do not address the complex challenges of supra-national regulation of global media.

Both a rights-based approach to childhood obesity and regulation of digital marketing must take into account the rights of children to participation and protection under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child . Thus, children have the right to participate in digital media; and, when they are participating, they have the right to protection of their health and privacy and not to be economically exploited. States should support parents in upholding these rights. Children’s participation in digital media should not be predicated on receiving digital HFSS advertising, nor should it be predicated on “devolving” consent to parents. Instead, States and supra-national actors should devise ways to ensure that children participate in the digital world without being targeted by marketers with immersive, engaging, entertaining marketing that has been demonstrated to be injurious to their health.

To achieve this goal, the report identifies eight key components for effective policies. States should (i) acknowledge their duty to protect children from HFSS digital marketing with statutory regulation and (ii) extend any existing offline protection online. Furthermore, rather than leaving commercial interests to define the parameters of marketing to children, as is frequently the case, States should (iii) define “marketing directed at children” as well as (iv) the legal age at which marketing to children could be permitted. The report also notes that States can (v) draw on existing legislation, regulation and regulatory agencies in framing protection for children and proposes that States (vi) draw on existing practices for regulating Internet content and compel private Internet platforms to remove marketing of HFSS foods. Finally, to ensure that strategies to regulate marketing in the digital landscape are effective, the report notes that international legislation now recognizes the need for (vii) serious sanctions, including monetary penalties, and (viii) international cross-border strategies.