(U.S.) – While age limits discourage social media use among young children, research has found that at least half of children ages 8-11 years use Instagram, and even more access content on YouTube.
A new study, “Social Media Influencer Marketing and Children’s Food Intake: A Randomized Trial,” in the April 2019 Pediatrics (published online March 4), found that social media influencers may inspire children to eat unhealthy foods—potentially leading to obesity. Researchers found that social media influencers’ promotion of unhealthy foods increased children’s immediate junk food intake, whereas the equivalent marketing of healthy foods had no effect.
Researchers studied 176 children, ages 9-11, and asked them to view mock Instagram profiles of two popular YouTube video bloggers featuring images of the influencers with unhealthy snacks, healthy snacks, or non-food products. Afterward, researchers provided the children with a selection of healthy and unhealthy snacks.
The children who viewed influencers with unhealthy snacks ate more unhealthy snacks and more food in general, compared with children who viewed influencers with non-food products. Viewing influencers with healthy snacks did not significantly affect intake.
Researchers concluded that food marketing restrictions should be applied to new forms of digital marketing, particularly on social media where vulnerable young people spend a lot of their time online, but that more research is needed to understand the impact of digital food marketing and to inform appropriate policy action.