New WHO study shows more action needed to monitor and limit digital marketing of unhealthy products to children

Ashan Pathirana

A new report from WHO/Europe calls for greater monitoring of the digital marketing of alcohol, tobacco and unhealthy food products, especially those high in salt, sugar and fat. It comes amid the advertising industry’s continued efforts to target children and adolescents on social media and on difficult-to-track mobile devices.

“The overriding concern is that nearly a decade after introducing the 2010 WHO recommendations on the marketing of foods and non-alcoholic beverages to children, exposure of children to the online marketing of unhealthy food products, tobacco and alcohol remains commonplace,” said Dr João Breda, Head of the WHO European Office for the Prevention and Control of Noncommunicable Diseases.

Monitoring the online advertising of unhealthy products to children is critical, as noncommunicable diseases such as heart disease, cancer, obesity and chronic respiratory disease are linked to smoking, alcohol abuse and the consumption of unhealthy food products. The onset of these diseases can be slowed or prevented if major risk factors and behaviours are addressed during childhood.

Despite this, the new report “Monitoring and restricting the digital marketing of unhealthy products to children and adolescents” confirms that data on the digital lives of children are scarce. It points out that children’s time spent online, including on social media, has steadily grown, meaning that their exposure to digital marketing has also increased. The report urgently calls for developing and implementing a set of tools for monitoring the exposure of children to digital marketing.

Data on children’s exposure to digital marketing

This report builds on a June 2018 expert meeting on the monitoring of digital marketing of unhealthy products to children and adolescents. The meeting provided clear steps forward in this area.

The idea is to establish a panel-based methodology that can be implemented in a standard way across Member States to benchmark and highlight issues to regulators and policy-makers. With this in mind, WHO has begun promoting the need for a monitoring method known as the CLICK Tool, which would assess the extent of children’s actual exposure to digital marketing on a regular basis.

Findings from such a tool, WHO believes, could help strengthen the case to national governments for action to protect children not just from advertisements for unhealthy foods, but also from those for tobacco and alcohol. The tool focuses on the following 5 key components.

C – Comprehend the digital ecosystem: Map the global, regional and national digital marketing ecosystem and children’s website and digital application usage, and supplement this with focus groups to gauge the thoughts, experiences and awareness of children (and parents/guardians) about marketing techniques and campaigns.

L – Landscape of campaigns: Assess campaigns of leading national brands by collecting information from advertising agencies and by sampling whole-country social media for relevant content to ascertain what is viewed by different age groups.

I – Investigate exposure: Map exposure to a selection of paid digital marketing among a panel of children in each age bracket using an installed smartphone application that (with consent) monitors and aggregates data on children’s interaction with advertisements in some websites and social media.

C – Capture on-screen: Use real-time screen-capture software on a subgroup of devices to assess what a representative sample of children actually sees online on their devices to better understand wider marketing techniques, including user-generated content and product placement.

K – Knowledge sharing: Create user-friendly materials from the research data and develop partnerships with young people, parents, policy-makers and members of civil society who together can advocate for change, raise awareness and influence policy.