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Is Online Marketing Making Kids Obese?

A new study highlights ways companies use the Web to promote unhealthy foods to youngsters and asks regulators to step in

Gabrielle Ayala, 10, takes good care of her virtual pet. She diligently logs online to Neopets.com to feed the cat-like creature ice cream, omelets, smoothies, jellies, and baked goods. For Gabrielle, the Web site is about fun. Some marketers, however, see such online kids communities as an opportunity to associate "fun" with snack foods from the likes of McDonalds (MCD), Kellogg's (K), Kraft Foods (KFT), and others.

For parents trying to promote healthy eating habits, these online sales pitches are making mealtime no picnic, according to a new study. Researchers from the Center for Digital Democracy and American University released a report May 17 detailing how low-nutrient foods are marketed online to kids and teens using everything from avatars in virtual worlds to instant-messaging chat tools, and from Web sweepstakes to interactive games. The report's authors suggest that a rise in such marketing on sites where kids are spending larger chunks of time is contributing to childhood obesity and diet-related health problems by encouraging kids to make poor food choices.