YouTube Influencers Promote Unhealthy Food to Kids, Study Finds

Screenshot of YouTube kid influencer Ryan Kaji, pretending to be a McDonald’s cashier in an episode of his show “Ryan’s World.” The 9-year-old took in $26 million in 2019, making him the top YouTube earner that year.

(CN) — Amid the growing obesity crisis in the United States, research revealed Monday that childhood nutrition faces a new challenge as young influencers on YouTube promote unhealthy food and drinks to their followers.

In a study published Monday in the journal Pediatrics, researchers from NYU School of Global Public Health and NYU Grossman School of Medicine discuss this modern threat to public health.

From a young age, kids are exposed to targeted marketing from food and beverage companies, but very few consist of healthy options. These companies will spend approximately $1.8 billion a year for this purpose, but according to a 2013 study, 84% of these advertisements promote foods that are high in saturated fat, trans fats, sugar  or sodium.

These targeted ads appear on television, the internet, video games, celebrity sponsorships, mobile apps and more, and there have been very few limitations put in place. 

In 2016, there was a 3% drop in television ads viewed by children, but this was likely due to a shift towards online and mobile device marketing. This trend has only picked up since then, and these companies have steadily increased their online and social media presence.

“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,” said senior author Marie Bragg, assistant professor of public health nutrition at NYU School of Global Public Health. “We need a digital media environment that supports healthy eating instead of discouraging it.”

The popular streaming service has been a staple in social media for 15 years, and ranks as the second most viewed website in the world. 

Although YouTube discourages children under the age of 13 from using its website, it is among the most popular entertainment platforms for children, and 80% of parents with kids 12 or younger reported that they allow their kids to watch it. A study conducted by the Pew Research Center found that despite their policy, YouTube videos targeted at or featuring kids are some of the most popular on the site. 

“The allure of YouTube may be especially strong in 2020 as many parents are working remotely and have to juggle the challenging task of having young kids at home because of Covid-19,” Bragg said.

The researchers found that when searching for appropriate content for their little ones, parents will often look to “kid influencers.” These are increasingly popular channels run by parents who will film their little ones doing activities, and has raised many questions about regulations.

Influencer marketing has been projected to become a $9.7 billion industry by the end of 2020, regardless of how young the influencer. This growing industry has been greatly utilized by big companies, who pay channel users to promote their ads throughout their videos. 

“Parents may not realize that kid influencers are often paid by food companies to promote unhealthy food and beverages in their videos. Our study is the first to quantify the extent to which junk food product placements appear in YouTube videos from kid influencers,” Bragg said.

The researchers found that the five most popular kid influencers in 2019 were ages 3 to 14 years old. In their study, they looked through the most watched content from the five, totaling 418 videos, and made note of if there was a food or drink present, what kind and what brand they were and their nutritional facts.

The results showed that 42.8% of the most watched videos from kid influencers promoted food and drinks, and more than 90% of the products were unhealthy branded food and drinks. 

The videos featured fast food and fast food toys the most frequently, with candy and soda as close seconds. They also found 4% of videos featured unbranded unhealthy foods, 3% featured unbranded healthy foods, and 2% featured branded healthy foods. 

“It was concerning to see that kid influencers are promoting a high volume of junk food in their YouTube videos, and that those videos are generating enormous amounts of screen time for these unhealthy products,” Bragg said.

In total, these videos reached over 1 billion views, and the researchers warn that this is an undeniable concern for public health. Whether the featured food and drinks were paid endorsements or not, they say that it enables these companies to promote unhealthy products to young children at an unprecedented rate.

“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,” Bragg said. 

“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.”

Study co-author Jennifer Pomeranz, assistant professor at NYU School of Global Public Health, said the authors hope the study will “encourage the Federal Trade Commission and state attorneys general to focus on this issue and identify strategies to protect children and public health.”

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