Stuffing Chips - © Michael Moss - Salt Sugar Fat Book

Child ‘Influencers’ Promoting Junk Food VIA YouTube

We’ve often heard about learned studies and legislative attempts to control the conventional advertising of Junk Food and other unhealthy stuff to children. But a new large scale study of advertising on YouTube videos has revealed that companies have shifted their efforts to the Internet…

Recipe for Obese Kids - © dhawkdesign.comWith many parents working at home because of the pandemic, these days, needing a
means of keeping their kids occupied for long periods of time, it’s inevitable
that either parents or kids will end up at You Tube looking for
something ‘appropriate’ for the little ones to watch…

Kudos to the various national broadcasting and ad watchdog authorities of many Western nations which have banned or severely curtailed advertising of junk food and other harmful consumables to kids on TV, radio, display signage and billboards. But I’ve been wondering why the advertising industry and the companies in question have not out up more of a fight over their loss of ‘voice’ in the conventional media. The answer to that question, of course, is that the hucksters have turned their efforts massively to the Internet.

Kid influencers

Influencers are well-known figures – usually celebrities – who promote brands and whole categories of products in their You Tube (and other-channel) videos and on their podcasts and websites. Adults are expected to know when they are being manipulated and, so, are adult influencers are used mercilessly to hawking all manner of goods and services to them. But only recently have researchers suspected the extent that child influencers are being used to instill preferences for stuff – mainly junk foods – in their peers.

What they did

“Parents may not realize that kid influencers are often paid by food companies to promote unhealthy food and beverages in their videos.” Dr. Marie Bragg of New York University (NYU) says. “Our study is the first to quantify the extent to which junk food product placements appear in YouTube videos from kid influencers.”

In fact, the highest-paid You Tube influencer of the past two years was an 8-year-old who earned $26 million last year.

“Kids already see several thousand food commercials on television every year, and adding these YouTube videos on top of it may make it even more difficult for parents and children to maintain a healthy diet,” says Bragg. “We need a digital media environment that supports healthy eating instead of discouraging it.”

According to an abstract of her group’s study report, Bragg and her colleagues identified the five most popular kid influencers on YouTube of 2019 – whose ages ranged from 3 to 14 years old – and analyzed their most-watched videos. Focusing on a sample of 418 YouTube videos, they recorded whether food or drinks were shown in the videos, what items and brands were shown, and assessed their nutritional quality.

What they found

You Tube is the second most visited website in the world and is a popular destination for kids seeking entertainment. More than 80 percent of parents with a child younger than 12 years old allow their child to watch YouTube, and 35 percent of parents report that their kid watches YouTube regularly.

The researchers found that nearly half of the most-popular videos from kid influencers (42.8 percent) promoted food and drinks. More than 90 percent of the products shown were unhealthy branded food, drinks, or fast food toys, with fast food as the most frequently featured junk food, followed by candy and soda.

“It’s a perfect storm for encouraging poor nutrition — research shows that people trust influencers because they appear to be ‘everyday people,’ and when you see these kid influencers eating certain foods, it doesn’t necessarily look like advertising. But it is advertising, and numerous studies have shown that children who see food ads consume more calories than children who see non-food ads, which is why the National Academy of Medicine and World Health Organization identify food marketing as a major driver of childhood obesity,” Bragg explains.

The takeaway

“We hope that the results of this study encourage the Federal Trade Commission and state attorneys general to focus on this issue and identify strategies to protect children and public health,” says Study Co-Author Jennifer Pomeranz, Assistant Professor of Public Health Policy and Management at NYU’s School of Global Public Health.

My take

I agree with the study team. With junk food advertisers pouring so much money into promoting their products to kids on the Internet, it’s frightening to think about what they could accomplish if they really made a concerted effort! I say extend the regulations about ads on conventional media to the online media and social networks. Then take a long, measured and detailed look at the online situation and tweak the online regs as necessary to close any loopholes. It seems just crazy that we’re making kid ‘influencers’ and junk food companies rich at the expense of out children’s health. Especially since we have the power to fix the problem…

~ Maggie J.