Rx Nutrition Resource Center
Rx Nutrition Resource Center
March 08, 2019
2 min read

Social media influencers contribute to children’s unhealthy food intake

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Photo of Anna Coates
Anna E. Coates

Children who viewed images of social media influencers with unhealthy snacks were more likely to consume unhealthy food compared with children who viewed the same influencers with healthy foods, according to study results published in Pediatrics.

Unhealthy food marketing embedded within the content of a popular social media influencer’s post is more discreet, and potentially more powerful, than other forms of food marketing,” Anna E. Coates, MPhil, a PhD student at the Institute of Psychology, Health and Society at the University of Liverpool, told Infectious Diseases in Children.

Coates and colleagues studied 176 children aged 9 to 11 years (mean age, 10.5 years) who were recruited through schools in the United Kingdom. The researchers wrote that this age group is active on social media, despite most platforms, such as YouTube, Instagram and Twitter, having terms and conditions that the user be aged 13 years and older.

“Children get around these restrictions by registering for social media accounts with fake dates of birth, or using their parents’ accounts,” Coates said.

The researchers randomly assigned the children to viewings of “mock Instagram profiles” of two popular YouTube Video bloggers, both considered “influencers,” they said. Fifty-eight children saw images of the influencers with unhealthy snacks, 59 children viewed images of the influencers with healthy snacks and 59 viewed the influencers with nonfood products.

The researchers measured the children’s ad libitum intake of healthy and unhealthy snacks. Unhealthy snacks included jelly candy and chocolate buttons, and healthy snacks included carrot sticks and white grapes.

Children assigned to watch the influencers with images of unhealthy snacks consumed 26% more kilocalories overall (448.3 kcal) compared with children who watched influencers with no food (357.1 kcal) and 15% more overall than children who watched influencers with healthy snacks (388.96 kcal). The children who watched the influencers with unhealthy snacks also had a significantly increased overall intake of unhealthy snacks (388.8 kcal) compared with children who watched the influencers with no food products (292.2 kcal). The children who viewed the influencers with healthy snacks did not significantly increase healthy snack intake.

The researchers wrote that “increasing the promotion of healthy foods on social media may not be an effective strategy to encourage healthy dietary behaviors in children.”

“Food marketing regulation, whereby a target audience is inferred from social media user demographics, is failing to protect children,” Coates said. “Stricter regulation of digital food marketing is required.” – by Bruce Thiel

Disclosures: Coates reports no relevant financial disclosures. Please see the study for all other authors’ relevant financial disclosures.