The World Obesity Foundation is calling for European Union-wide regulation of adverts that target children in online video games, apps, social media and other digital platforms, which it said are fuelling the obesity crisis.

The London-based organisation – which represents members of the scientific, medical and research communities from more than 50 regional and national obesity bodies – said it has compiled a dossier detailing what it describes as “powerful targeting techniques that track children’s online behaviour – including their browsing history, location, preferences, ‘likes’ and even their emotions – [that] are being used by advertisers to persuade children to purchase foods and drinks high in fat, sugar and salt (HFSS)”. 

It said that digital marketing and the expansion of online platforms has also made it harder for parents to identify and moderate the adverts and content to which their children are exposed. 

Its evidence dossier collates research from a range of sources to support the planning, design and implementation of digital marketing regulations.

The Federation is now making a series of recommendations for policy makers in the EU, including introducing digital marketing regulations on adverts that target teenagers and regulating all forms of digital marketing towards children, including social networking sites, emails, mobile phone texts, ‘advergames’ and other phone application.

It has also called for greater cooperation across national boundaries to reduce the impact of cross-border marketing techniques.

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Hannah Brinsden, head of policy at the World Obesity Federation, said: “Of the 53 countries in Europe, only half have taken any steps to limit marketing of HFSS foods to children, eight years after WHO recommendations were published. Of these, few countries have regulated and even fewer have addressed digital marketing.  Meanwhile, evidence shows that introducing restrictions would reduce purchase and intake of these HFSS foods, and thus contribute to reducing BMI and millions in cost savings.

“Children are particularly exposed to the effects of food and beverage marketing as they can be deliberately targeted at moments when they are at their most vulnerable, exploiting their emotions. It’s time for governments to seize the moment and develop statutory regulations to safeguard children from the unrestricted power of junk food advertising.”