Saturday, March 14, 2009

Childhood Obesity and the Internet

I gave a presentation to a Dail group charged with implementing the Obesity taskforce this week.

The topic of the presentation was on the role of the Internet in childhood obesity. I made the point that internet advertising broadly defined was changing fundamentally the task for those interested in controlling the messages being delivered to children and adolescents in the area of diet and physical activity.

There are strong reasons to begin to look at the role of the internet in childhood obesity. As well as advertising, the increasing amount of time spent by children online is itself contributing to sedentarism.

Even a brief google search for this topic will reveal to you a whole ecology of food-related websites, ranging from bebo pages for popular foods like Skittles to things like "McWorld" where kids can play video games.

The extent to which online social networks condition diet and physical activity is something for which there is little evidence. Also, we know very little about the nature and type of messages that children glean from the web about diet and physical activity and how this alters their risk perception, forms their identity and conditions their self-control.

It is clear however that companies are experimenting vigorously with the use of the net and are working all the available channels and the connections between them. This is changing fundamentally the relevance of existing advertising restrictions and needs to be thought about actively in a way that has not yet been done.

This is an area for which policy needs to emerge and develop. At the very least, a new set of social norms needs to emerge quickly about what companies should and should not do with respect to online activities. Also, government agencies as well as parents and voluntary groups need to think about using technologies such as adsense and related technologies to counteract the messages being beamed to kids by marketers and by other kids.

For example, if you do a basic google search for things like bulimia you will find a string of advertisements for treatments. It raises the question as to whether government agencies should be trying to actively intervene in these messages through their own advertising.

I wrote a report a few years ago about the scope of volunteering in Irish sport. One form that volunteering may need to take on is to attempt to turn the web into something that promotes or at least is neutral toward physical activity. This may mean those who believe in physical activity and healthy eating as positive forces for children actively blogging and pointing out behaviour of groups who are using the web in ways that flout social norms about how we should persuade children.

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