22 million children in the EU are overweight or obese. It is a significant public health challenge for all the countries represented in the EYTO partnership. It affects one in three children in the UK, almost half of 10-18 year olds in Portugal, over half of 5-17 year olds in Spain, and over a third of 6-17 year olds in the Czech Republic (World Obesity Federation). Obesity can cause a range of chronic health problems including diabetes, heart disease, and cancer. It is also linked to low-self esteem, poor educational outcomes, and reduced overall life chances (Reilly, J.J). It is a major health inequality; young people from low-income groups are at particular risk – this is connected to low levels of health education, parental obesity, lack of green space and opportunities to be physically active, and the financial cost of eating healthily. Aggressive marketing of unhealthy food to children and young people and the number of cheap takeaways in deprived areas are also important factors.
The teenage years are pivotal in determining the longer term risk of obesity, and as our behaviours are harder to change as we get older, provide a vital window of opportunity to help young people develop healthier lifestyles. As children become teenagers and gain greater independence, they experience new freedoms that can influence their weight – from being able to spend pocket money, eating out with friends to using social networking sites, on which they encounter adverts for junk food. Not enough attention has been given to supporting young people at this point of transition to counter negative pressures and make healthy lifestyle choices. Whilst youth-led social marketing campaigns have been successfully developed on other health topics, the potential to use this technique to tackle obesity has yet to be realised. Research also highlights the need to actively involve young people in the design and delivery of such campaigns to achieve positive behaviour change.
The EYTO partnership was borne over shared concern over the levels of youth obesity, and a lack of innovative and targeted work to tackle the complex issues that adolescents face as compared to younger children.
“I didn’t realise that an energy drink could contain so much sugar. I used to drink some – now I don’t, but I know people that drink a lot of it. At the same time I have changed while trying to make people change". EYTO Young Campaign Creator