Europe’s obesity epidemic is on the rise as children in the region are being assailed with hidden marketing and digital advertising that pitches salty, fatty and sugary food to them, World Health Organization authorities stated on Friday.
The health experts called on government officials to curb the number of junk food advertising messages on social media and games known as “advergames”.
“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,” said Zsuzsanna Jakab, the WHO’s regional director for Europe.
The lack of rigorous regulation of digital media in European countries is making it easy for companies to individually tailor marketing messages to children that parents are unaware of or underestimate.
“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,” said the WHO.
Children who are overweight before puberty have a two-thirds chance of being overweight as adults, said the report. About one-fourth of school-aged children in Europe are obese or overweight.
Overweight and obese children are more likely to develop long-term diseases such as diabetes, cancer and heart illness at a young age.
Garden Galea, a WHO expert on health promotion and chronic disease said continuing to allow the food industry and advertisers to pitch their junk food messages to children could have “huge health and economic consequences”.
Often, personal data of the children is collected by advertisers that make it easier for them to tailor their messages to the minors.
Digital marketing delivers entertaining, emotional experiences to children who subsequently share the marketing message with their friends, the report stated, adding that this is “a dubious cocktail when used to promote unhealthy foods”.