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‘Kidfluencers’ Are Promoting Junk Food On Youtube: Here’s What You Should Know

little girls taking a selfie of them eating food

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Key Takeways

  • Kid influencers on YouTube often use product placement to influence their young viewers. 
  • Almost half of the videos analyzed by researchers featured some sort of food or drinks, and 90% of those were branded junk or fast food items. 
  • The Federal Trade Commission is working to encourage industry self-regulation of food marketing to children, but doesn’t believe a restrictive ban is a practical solution. 

Listen up, parents. No matter how closely you monitor your child’s YouTube activity, you might be missing a trick. According to a recent study published in the journal Pediatrics, kid influencers on YouTube (aka “kidfluencers”) are peddling junk food and sugar-laden beverages to their young viewers, all in the name of racking up those page views.

It’s no secret that children have been targeted via television advertising for decades (ever wondered why there are so many commercials for junk food and toys during kids’ shows?) but this research is the first to shine a light on the product placement that forms a central part of YouTube content. 

What the Study Found

The researchers, from the department of population health, school of medicine and school of global public health at New York University, analyzed videos posted by the five most-watched kid influencers (all of whom were between the ages of 3 and 14) on YouTube in 2019. The team recorded whether the influencers played with toys or consumed food, such as fast-food meals, and noted the amount of time they spent on a particular activity. 

A total of 418 YouTube videos fell within the team’s search criteria, of which 179 of them featured food or drinks. And 90% of those occurrences showed unhealthy branded items, such as fast food. But here’s the figure that counts: those particular videos were viewed more than a billion times. 

Even Educational Videos Can Promote Junk Food

“Sometimes the influencers were just eating McDonald's or other times they were doing science experiments with candy, but those kinds of product placements can prompt kids to pester parents for those foods,” says senior author Marie Bragg, an assistant professor of public health nutrition with joint appointments at New York University's School of Global Public Health and Langone Medical Center.

Bragg continues, “Previous studies have shown that seeing food advertisements leads kids to eat more. I hope parents will become more aware that YouTube videos featuring kid influencers are often promoting unhealthy foods and beverages through product placements.” 

Marie Bragg, PhD

Sometimes the influencers were just eating McDonald's or other times they were doing science experiments with candy, but those kinds of product placements can prompt kids to pester parents for those foods.

— Marie Bragg, PhD

This type of product placement is a core part of the economic model for Youtube influencers. "It pays for the content," says T. Makana Chock, PhD, associate professor and David J. Levidow professor in the communications department at S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications.

"The problem is that young children may not have the developmental capabilities to recognize these types of persuasive messages. They may not be able to distinguish between product placement and the entertainment part of a Youtube show," says Chock.

Why Target Kids? 

It’s simple – the youngest members of a household influence a significant amount of family spending. “This is particularly true for food products,” Chock explains.

And to fully comprehend how much child YouTube viewers are targeted, we might have to bring our understanding of advertising up to date. “We often think of advertising as consisting of a 30-second commercial,” Chock says. “Today, however, products are promoted less obviously, by making them an integral part of a show, like a child influencer talking excitedly about going to a fast food store or snacking on a particular brand of product, with the brand label prominently displayed.” 

Is Anything Being Done About This?

The NYU researchers argue that the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and state authorities should enforce tighter regulations concerning product placement on YouTube videos that feature young children. "The FTC argues that a restrictive ban isn’t a practical solution, but it's working to encourage industry self-regulation of food marketing to children," says Chock.

T. Makana Chock, PhD

The problem is that young children may not have the developmental capabilities to recognize these types of persuasive messages. They may not be able to distinguish between product placement and the entertainment part of a Youtube show.

— T. Makana Chock, PhD

In March, the Kids Internet Design and Safety Act was introduced by Democratic US Sen. Ed Markey of Massachusetts and US Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut. This legislation would expand upon protections in the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act, which was passed in 1998.

"The KIDS Act proposes to limit promotion of tobacco and alcohol to youth, especially when promoted by influencers," says Bragg. "And it addresses some of the social media tools like auto-play, that keep videos playing one after another and may increase exposure to unhealthy food and beverages. But right now, the bill doesn't include food or beverages, which would be a powerful tool for protecting children's healthy dietary behaviors."

The Bigger Picture 

Although the researchers don't address long-term health implications, it's clear that the consequences of this kind of product endorsement goes way beyond kids pestering their parents to add all sorts of junk foods to the shopping cart in the supermarket.

Dietary habits during childhood can have a significant effect on the risk of obesity, cardiovascular disease, and Type 2 diabetes in adulthood. A study published in 2017 found that kids who regularly eat takeaway meals – at least once a week – are raising their likelihood of heart disease and diabetes.

What This Means For You

If you have kids who watch YouTube, you can limit screen time on tablets and other devices – most of them have parental control tools to let you automatically cut off access to an app after a certain amount of time each day.

You can also educate your kids about the stealthy nature of these product placements, and reach out to companies and ask them to better regulate how and when their products appear in kid influencer videos. 

 

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  1. Alruwaily A, Mangold C, Greene T, et al. Child social media influencers and unhealthy food product placementPediatrics. 2020;146(5):e20194057. doi:10.1542/peds.2019-4057 

  2. Congess.gov. s.3411 - KIDS Act. March 5, 2020. 

  3. Donin AS, Nightingale CM, Owen CG, Rudnicka AR, Cook DG, Whincup PH. Takeaway meal consumption and risk markers for coronary heart disease, type 2 diabetes and obesity in children aged 9-10 years: a cross-sectional studyArch Dis Child. 2018;103(5):431-436. doi:10.1136/archdischild-2017-312981