According to a new study conducted by the Oslo Metropolitan University (OsloMet), 8 out of 10 food and drink advertisements aimed at children in Norway violate WHO guidelines and promote unhealthy nutrition. The research used the CLICK framework – a tool that helps monitor and restrict marketing of unhealthy products to children, developed by the WHO European Office for the Prevention and Control of Noncommunicable Diseases.
Researchers have mapped the current digital marketing landscape of food and drinks directed at children aged 3–17 years in Norway, revealing that the majority of the products advertised were foods and beverages high in fat, salt and sugar. While most of these should not be promoted to a young audience, according to WHO guidelines, only 9% of them were deemed unacceptable under the guidelines currently in effect in Norway.
“Protecting children and adolescents from marketing of harmful products online is critical,” underscores Professor Knut-Inge Klepp, Executive Director of Mental and Physical Health at the Norwegian Institute of Public Health, “This report demonstrates that many children and adolescents are not sufficiently protected by current guidelines in Norway, and the study results can be used to inform and adjust national regulations.”
Digital marketing contributes to unhealthy eating habits in children
The WHO European Region continues to struggle with high rates of childhood obesity in many countries. There is overwhelming evidence that the marketing of foods and beverages high in saturated fat, trans-fatty acids, free sugars or salt (HFSS) influences a child’s knowledge, attitudes and food preferences. Consumption of these promoted products is associated with increased risk of overweight and obesity. Obesity in children is a risk factor for noncommunicable diseases, many of which are preventable if major risk factors and behaviours are addressed during childhood.
Childhood obesity is a growing challenge in Norway, where approximately 24% of boys and 22% of girls in primary school live with overweight or obesity, as do around 25% of adolescents in the country. Moreover, the prevalence of overweight and obesity in children has not decreased over the past decade, and health authorities are interested in identifying the role that marketing of unhealthy products plays in this regard.
“Authorities should review the regulations and the age limits,” says Kamilla Knutsen Steinnes of Consumption Research Norway (SIFO), OsloMet. “Norway’s guidelines should be better aligned with WHO guidelines. Today, only children under the age of 13 are protected by current guidelines, whereas it is actually adolescents over the age of 13 who are most frequently subjected to advertising. All children need to be protected online.”
Pilot study with impressive results
The study conducted in Norway uses the CLICK monitoring framework, developed by WHO/Europe, which comprises five steps, adaptable to national contexts. Norway is the first of the participating countries to successfully complete the third step of the framework (Investigate exposure) by collecting data on paid advertisements directly from devices used by children.
“Since the digital landscape is constantly changing, it is difficult to gain good insight without monitoring the children”, says Vilde Haugrønning from OsloMet. “We have used the best method available at present.”
The results of this pilot mapping of advertisement data from the mobile phones of 47 participating children show that 1 in 10 out of the total 5076 captured advertisements promoted food and drink products, primarily unhealthy ones, and that the children spent an average of 13 seconds viewing an advertisement.
While this study focuses only on the impact of paid advertising, the CLICK monitoring framework also offers additional protocols to monitor indirect marketing, such as advertisements made by celebrities and social media influencers. Indirect advertising of unhealthy products to children by influencers with an immense reach is often difficult to recognize as marketing, which makes it highly problematic. It could mean that the extent to which children are being subjected to advertisements of unhealthy products is even greater than described in the report.
“This new study completed by Norway using the WHO/Europe CLICK framework provides some of the most convincing data we have seen so far to demonstrate the extent of this issue,” says Dr Kremlin Wickramasinghe, Acting Programme Manager for Nutrition, Physical Activity and Obesity, WHO Regional Office for Europe. “It reminds us that we must consider how suitable the current policies are for protecting children in the WHO European Region from marketing pressure.”
The report suggests that Norwegian guidelines should be better aligned with WHO guidelines through redefining and improving regulation to protect children from unacceptable promotion of unhealthy products online. In early March the report will be presented to government officials in a meeting hosted by the Ministry of Children and Families in Norway.