'Kid Influencers' Promoting Junk Food on YouTube

By Anne Harding

October 27, 2020

NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - Kids who are "influencers" on YouTube can earn millions of dollars, and their fans are being exposed to a hefty dose of junk food product placement, new findings in Pediatrics show.

Fast food and other unhealthy branded foods accounted for 90% of the food and drink featured on kid influencers' channels in 2019, Dr. Marie Bragg of New York University in New York City and her colleagues found.

"Dozens of studies have shown that exposure to unhealthy food ads leads kids to overeat, so exposure to these kinds of images may cue overeating and lead to weight gain and obesity," Dr. Bragg, the study's senior author, told Reuters Health by phone.

Amaal Alruwaily, a PhD student at NYU and the study's lead author, alerted Dr. Bragg to the "kid influencer" phenomenon after watching her nieces and nephews enjoy the videos, filmed by parents, which may feature the child playing with toys or even "unboxing" them. These popular social media figures, just like adult influencers, are paid to endorse products. The top kid influencer in 2018-2019, eight-year-old Ryan, raked in $26 million from ads and sponsored posts, the researchers note.

In the new study, the authors identified YouTube's five most popular kid influencers for 2019, who ranged in age from three to 14 years old, and looked for their 50 most-watched videos and 50 from each influencer that included food and/or drinks on the thumbnail image for the video. They came up with a sample of 418 videos, 179 of which featured food and/or drinks a total of 291 times.

Videos from the influencers were viewed more than 48 billion times, while the videos featuring food or drink were viewed a billion times. Unhealthy branded items accounted for 90.34% of products featured, while 4.1% were unhealthy unbranded items, 3.1% healthy unbranded items, and 2.4% healthy branded items.

"Kids who watch these YouTube kid influencers may be at increased risk for poor diet, because the kid influencers are promoting a lot of junk food," Dr. Bragg said. While influencers are supposed to always disclose when content is sponsored, she added, it's not always clear whether an influencer is being paid to feature a product. "A lot of brands, we simply don't know."

About 13 countries outside the U.S. regulate the marketing of junk food to kids, Dr. Bragg noted. In the U.S., companies can sign on to the Child Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative, which she calls "a pretty weak voluntary pledge" not to target kids under 12 with ads for unhealthy foods.

"Research has shown that the pledge has so many loopholes that it hasn't actually improved the food marketing landscape," Dr. Bragg said. "The other major loophole is it doesn't include digital advertising."

The Kids Internet Design and Safety Act, introduced in March 2020, is aimed at tobacco and similar products, and Dr. Bragg argues it should be expanded to include junk food.

"It's not enough to have parents limit screen time," Dr. Bragg said. "It's also critical to counsel parents to be skeptical of videos even when they say they're educational and kid-friendly." There are lots of influencers waiting to tap the huge market spurred by kids' "pester power," she added, estimated at $190 billion in sales annually.

"I also think we have to put pressure on companies to be responsible with what they're paying for with their sponsorships," Dr. Bragg said.

"Our findings suggest the need for future experimental studies to examine the extent to which viewing these types of videos increases consumption of unhealthy foods and assess whether kid influencers' endorsements increase the preferences for the product among toddlers, young children, and parents. The FTC should enact regulations that more adequately address unhealthy food and beverage brands promoted by kid influencers," she and her colleagues conclude.

SOURCE: https://bit.ly/35wn4hE and https://bit.ly/3dXgh4m Pediatrics, online October 26, 2020.