Companies are increasingly using digital channels to market products to children. Why is digital marketing so effective? Should we be concerned about the potential effects on health? What is the right public health response to this new challenge? Dr Mojca Gabrijelčič from NIJZ spoke with Alexandra Latham about the issues.
By Dr. Mojca Gabrijelčič Blenkuš
Children who are now in their teenage years were born into a digital world. It’s a world in which they spend a lot of time – school pupils in the OECD area spend an average of 139 minutes on the internet daily during the weekend, and only marginally less during weekdays . These young people have also reached the age at which we start making independent choices and having some form of disposable income. They are becoming consumers.
Our digital lives produce a huge amount of data about our preferences, habits, desires, and fears which is collected by public and private entities. This creates new opportunities to deliver personalised and targeted information and advertising at the moments we are most susceptible.
Online advertising can be based on the content a user views (contextual advertising) or based their individual profile (online behavioural advertising). This profile is often created by ‘cookies’, files placed on a user’s device to monitor their preferences and behaviour- some of which can never be removed. It is also possible to track users and their families across devices. Data from different sources and cookies can be traded between organisations to help build up a more complete profile of an individual.
Many people also choose to actively participate in online marketing and enjoy it. Users ‘like’ or share content such as videos and games from brands they identify with. Interactive content is particularly popular.
Marketing to teenagers is not a new phenomenon, and we know that alarming rates of childhood obesity are caused in part by the effects of marketing unhealthy foods and drinks. Should we be concerned about how the digital revolution is changing the way young people are sold products? Dr Mojca Gabrijelčič thinks so. “We have created a digital world but we have no idea what the effects will be” she says. With 1/3 of 11-year-olds overweight or obese, it seems her concern could well be justified.
Digital marketing is new and evolving quickly. “We want to empower people to make healthy choices, but we have to recognise that these choices happen in a rapidly changing digital environment” thinks Dr Gabrijelčič. “It’s complicated” she admits, but “That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t act.” Digital marketing companies are much more advanced in their knowledge and ability to influence behaviour than public health bodies, she adds, and it’s important they catch up.
“Digital marketing is designed to be addictive to children and to extract data. It tries to impact behaviour, emotional responses, and preferences. It is also designed to target very specifically, which increases the vulnerability of children. It’s about entertainment, emotion, engagement, and addiction- both chemical and non-chemical. Digital marketing can be used to make a connection between an emotion and a brand name in ways we don’t realise. The techniques are subliminal” Says Gabrijelčič “we are all exposed to such techniques, but children are more vulnerable.”
Why are people happy to share their personal information, and in the case of children, why do parents accept their children’s personal information being shared with unknown companies so that they can be sold products which damage their health? One answer is ignorance. Children and parents are often unaware that their information is being stored or collected. “You and I are unaware of where our data is. Children and parents even less so” One other reason is choice. Users accept that they are giving their information and viewing adverts in exchange for a service experience they enjoy.
Dr Mojca Gabrijelčič has been working on marketing aimed at children for some time, and has begun to focus on digital marketing more closely in recent years. In 2017 NIJZ and WHO Europe organised a capacity building workshop on ‘Digital marketing to Children: Methodological challenges for linking public health silos’.
This experience has given her and her colleagues some ideas about how to respond to the emerging and changing challenge.
She identifies one particular barrier for public health agencies: “We don’t understand what’s happening because it’s a completely technical issue which is quite difficult to follow. The technology changes from month to month” The answer, she says, is to collaborate. In Slovenia they involved the National Agency for Telecommunication and Networks (AKOS Slovenije) to get a better understanding of the technical aspects.
Gabrijelčič thinks that to make progress we have to know “where we are, what the drivers are, what are the ethics, where is the transparency?” Her advice is to “map what is happening. Look for patterns in regulations and framing. Consider the differences in regulation between sectors and in the online and physical world.”
The digital marketing revolution “is also happening with alcohol, tobacco, gaming, and gambling and the techniques are the same” says Mojca. Colleagues from all these fields in Austria, Slovakia, and Slovenia have therefore started collaborating with success.
There is also a clear need for public empowerment and improvements in digital literacy. “As things currently are, parents cannot understand the long term consequences of data extraction. We have to educate parents and future parents, and improve digital literacy wherever possible. People need to be more aware of the subliminal nature of the messages” thinks Dr Gabrijelčič. “Parents can be well educated and responsible, but if the environment does not change they will not be able to achieve anything at the individual family level. International action is definitely needed”
She stresses that national agencies must urgently start working on these issues. At the same time Mojca acknowledges that “we are limited in what we can do at a national level because these issues are global and trans-border. If we want to protect children from digital marketing we need action at EU level”. In October 2017, a ‘declaration on digital health societies’ was launched during the Estonian Presidency of the Council of the EU. It contains some concepts which may help: citizen control of data, good governance, the need for all to take a responsible role, and the need for citizens to their data and privacy protected are all included.
The message is clear: we must take action. That means mapping where we are, collaborating internationally and between specialisations, and investing more political and institutional resources. We need to consider the wide effects – those on mental health and violence as well as physical health
Resources and further reading
Tackling food marketing to children in a digital world: trans-disciplinary perspectives – WHO (.pdf)
Nothing can be done until everything is done’: the use of complexity arguments by food, beverage, alcohol and gambling industries – Mark Petticrew
Who’s Feeding the Kids Online: Digital Food Marketing and Children in Ireland – Irish Heart Foundation
Digital marketing to Children: Methodological challenges for linking public health silos’. – Workshop presentations and material
WHO Report of the workshop on digital marketing to children, 12 October 2017, in Ljubljana, Slovenia
 OECD; Students, Computers and Learning: Making the Connection; chapter 2 figure 1.5: time spent online in school and outside of school. http://www.oecd.org/publications/students-computers-and-learning-9789264239555-en.htm
 WHO; Tacking food marketing to children in a digital world: trans-disciplinary perspectives; http://www.euro.who.int/__data/assets/pdf_file/0017/322226/Tackling-food-marketing-children-digital-world-trans-disciplinary-perspectives-en.pdf
 WHO Health Behaviour in School-aged Children (HBSC) Survey http://www.euro.who.int/en/health-topics/noncommunicable-diseases/obesity/data-and-statistics
Dr. Mojca Gabrijelčič Blenkuš
Dr. Mojca Gabrijelčič Blenkuš is a medical doctor and a specialist of public health. She also has a PhD in social sciences. Her fields of interest and expertise are nutrition, physical activity, and in last few years, aging and frailty. She was head of the Health promotion centre at the NIPH Slovenia from 2003 to 2010. Today, she is mostly involved in policy and programme development, and in research projects. Her main academic interest is in public policies; she holds assistant professorship at the Faculty of Health Sciences where she teaches health promotion theory and health in all policies. She is also the president of the EuroHealthNet Partnership.