Kids with popular YouTube channels are promoting unhealthy foods, study finds

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Experts say the advertising is often subtle, but it has far-reaching effects among kids

Many parents have taken steps towards incorporating healthier foods into their kids’ diets, while also limiting their junk food intake. However, a new study conducted by researchers from New York University has discovered a new way that kids could be influenced to crave unhealthy options. 

According to their findings, kids with popular YouTube channels are often promoting unhealthy food and drinks, which ultimately encourages young viewers to want those same things.

“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 researcher Marie Bragg. “We need a digital media environment that supports healthy eating instead of discouraging it.” 

The power of advertising

To better understand the influence these young YouTubers could have on the food and drink choices of other young people, the researchers analyzed nearly 420 videos from the five most popular kid accounts, and noted all food-related product placement and advertisements. 

These videos aren’t about food or nutrition, but instead typically feature kids playing with toys or doing other activities. However, many have ads for specific brands, which can entice young viewers. 

“Parents may not realize that kid influencers are often paid by food companies to promote unhealthy food and beverages in their videos,” said Bragg. “Our study is the first to quantify which junk food product placements appear in YouTube videos from kid influencers.” 

Fast food often featured

Ultimately, the researchers learned that 90 percent of the food and drinks shown in the videos they analyzed were unhealthy choices, with fast food as the most popularly featured junk food item. Healthy food choices, whether a specific brand or not, were shown in just five percent of the videos included in the study. 

These findings are concerning primarily because of how popular these videos are. Combined, they’ve garnered nearly 50 billion views, and the accounts have more than 38 million subscribers. With that kind of platform, there’s no question that these young people will have an effect on the food and drink choices for other kids across the country. 

“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,” said Bragg.

“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.” 

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