Kid influencers with wildly popular YouTube channels are often promoting unhealthy food and drinks in their videos, warn researchers at NYU School of Global Public Health and NYU Grossman School of Medicine in a new study published in the journal Pediatrics.
Food and beverage companies invest $1.8 billion dollars a year marketing their products to young people. Although tv advertising is a major source of food promotion, companies have dramatically increased online advertising in response to customers’ growing social media usage.
“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 Marie Bragg, assistant professor of public health nutrition at NYU School of Global Public Health and assistant professor in the Department of Population Health at NYU Langone. “We need a digital media environment that supports healthy eating instead of discouraging it.”
YouTube is the second most visited site in the world and is a popular destination for children looking for entertainment. Greater than 80% of parents with a child younger than 12 years old allow their kid to watch YouTube, and 35 percent of parents report that their kid watches YouTube often.
“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,” said Bragg, the study’s senior author.
When finding videos for young children to watch, millions of parents look for “kid influencers”. The rising popularity of these YouTube videos have captured the eye of companies, who promote or host articles to market their goods before or through videos. In reality, the highest-paid YouTube influencer of the previous two years has been an 8-year-old who earned $26 million last year.
“Parents may not realize that kid influencers are often paid by food Companies to promote unhealthy food and drinks in their videos. Our study is the first to measure the degree to which crap food product placements appear in YouTube videos from kid influencers,” said Bragg.
Bragg and her colleagues discovered the five most popular “kid influencers” focusing on a sample of 418 YouTube videos, they recorded whether food or drinks were shown in the videos, what items and brands have been displayed, and evaluated their nutrient quality.
The investigators found that almost half of those most-popular videos promoted food and drinks. More than 90 percent of the products promoted were unhealthy branded meals, drinks, or fast food toys, Fast food was the most frequently featured junk food, followed by soda and candy. Just a couple of videos featured bad unbranded things such as hot dogs (4%), healthy unbranded items such as fruit (3%), and healthful branded things like yogurt brands (2%).
The videos featuring junk food product placements were viewed more Than 1 billion times–a shocking degree of exposure for food and beverage companies.
“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,” said Bragg.
While the researchers do not know which food and drink product placements were paid endorsements, they find these videos problematic for public health because they enable food companies to directly–but subtly–promote unhealthy foods.
“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,” said Bragg.
The researchers urge federal and state regulators to strengthen And apply regulations of junk food advertising by kid influencers.
“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,” said study co-author Jennifer Pomeranz, assistant professor of public health policy and management at NYU School of Global Public Health.
Related Journal Article: https://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/early/2020/10/22/peds.2019-4057