The realities of a digital world, what it means for young people's health

Organiser: EuroHealthNet

Moderator: Mojca Gabrijelčič, NIJZ Slovenia and vice-president EuroHealthNet

Digital technologies have profoundly changed childhood and adolescence. Children and youth born since 1995 have grown up with internet, as an ever present feature in their lives.

Online access for many children is becoming more personal, more private and less supervised. Digital media and new technologies are changing children and youths’ lives and providing them with many new opportunities, but they can also pose challenges to their health and well-being.

Internet serves as a basis for digital media and new technologies to offer remarkable opportunities to engage and empower young people to drive change, and most children who are online view it as a positive experience. Digital technologies can also bring opportunities for learning, education, and employment.

In terms of health, e-mental health, for example, is a potential tool for prevention of mental health problems and for mental health promotion of children and adolescents. It can provide an anonymous, easily accessible forum for those hard to engage and it creates a platform for a forum of experiences and for prompt online intervention.

But there is also concern about the dangers of excessive on screen immersion. Time spent behind screens is contributing to more sedentary lifestyles and to growing levels of overweight and obesity. There are concerns about cyberbullying, child abuse, anxiety, gaming, and gambling. In addition, it is more difficult to put in place protections to keep youth from purchasing harmful products in the on-line world than in the real world. 

Internet is also becoming increasingly commercialized, since the majority of digital media rely on business models centred on advertising. And online presence exposes children and youth to digital marketing. 

Current knowledge and public health approaches are not adequately developed to address the challenges, benefits and impacts of digital technology on children and young people’s health. There is an absence of effective guidance and regulations of digital media in many countries. New ways of improving public health in Europe should define responses to the digital world of today and tomorrow.

Read the UNICEF report ‘A Child Rights-Based Approach to Food Marketing’ written by Amandine Garde (lead author) which presents a useful framework for delivering on the government obligation and business responsibility to protect children from unhealthy food marketing.

Key notes

  • Youth exposure to digital marketing and media 
    Jeff Chester, Executive Director at the Center for Digital Democracy, Washington, USA
  • Life in ‘likes’ - on the social media experience of children aged 8–12 years
    Anne Longfield, Children's Commissioner for England, United Kingdom 
  • Digital marketing, lifestyle determinants and health- alcohol, tobacco, nutrition, physical activity, gaming, gambling 
    João Breda, WHO European Office for the Prevention and Control of Noncommunicable Diseases

Panellists (to respond to key notes)

  • Improving mental health and wellbeing of young people by making better use of the internet, social media and mobile technologies
    Uršula Mavrič, No Excuse, Slovenia
  • Legal right to protect children from all kinds of marketing
    Amandine Garde, Law & Non-Communicable Diseases Unit, University of Liverpool, United Kingdom