Those sugary junk foods kids beg for in the supermarket? They were likely recommended by a child YouTube influencer.
A new study found that young influencers are stealthily promoting unhealthy food and fast food to their viewers, most of whom are children, and getting millions of views in the process, CNN reported.
Published Monday in the journal Pediatrics, the study laid bare the tactics advertisers are using to reach children, who have in the past largely been targeted via television. Instead, the study found that Big Food is now using kiddie social-media influencers to hock the junk — even in videos that seem strictly educational.
After analyzing 418 videos from the five most popular YouTubers between the ages of 3 and 14, the study found that 179 of the videos — just under half — featured some sort of food or drinks. A startling 90% of those videos showed branded junk or fast food items such as McDonald’s meals, and the videos with covert product placements were viewed more than a billion times since they were posted in 2019.
One such kidfluencer account was Ryan’s World, which has more than 26 million subscribers on its YouTube channel featuring 8-year-old Ryan Kaji.
“Parents may not realize that kid influencers are often paid by food companies to promote unhealthy food and beverages in their videos,” senior author Marie Bragg, an assistant professor of public health nutrition at New York University’s School of Global Public Health and at NYU Langone, said in a press release. “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.”
Exposure to fast food and other junk food through advertising has raised many red flags for parents, as excessive unhealthy diets can lead to problems like heart disease and diabetes later in life or even childhood obesity, which affects about 13.7 million children and adolescents, according to the CDC.
“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,” Bragg said. “We need a digital-media environment that supports healthy eating instead of discouraging it.”
Bragg cautioned that the influencers typically promote the products directly, exposing them to unhealthy food in a play setting. Many of the videos show them “unboxing” products, and it’s often unclear about whether it’s paid advertising or not — and children likely are unable to distinguish the difference anyway.
“It’s a perfect storm for encouraging poor nutrition,” she said. “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.”
Bragg and fellow researchers are calling for the Federal Trade Commission to regulate product placement on YouTube videos showing young children.
“This kind of marketing is uncharted territory for families and researchers,” she told CNN.