YouTube's 'kidfluencers' are marketing junk foods like McDonald's and chocolate bars

YouTube's 'kidfluencers' are marketing junk foods like McDonald's and chocolate bars
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  • In a study of YouTube videos from top child influencers, 90% of food and drink products were unhealthy, branded items.
  • Junk food promotion in kids' videos could lead to a lifetime of unhealthy eating, obesity, and related health problems.
  • The study authors called for stricter regulations on product placement in YouTube videos featuring kids.

The highest-paid YouTube star of 2019 is a 9-year-old named Ryan Kaji. Among his most popular videos, there's a tour of Chuck E Cheese, a McDonald's play-pretend, and a review of giant Chupa Chups lollipops.

Kids' channels like Ryan's World, which has almost 27 million subscribers, generate millions of impressions for unhealthy food and drink brands, according to a study published today in the journal Pediatrics.

Researchers from New York University's School of Global Public Health analyzed YouTube videos from the site's five most-watched kid influencers. They counted food and drink appearances, noting brand names and evaluating the nutritional content.
Not all of the branded products were associated with sponsorships, but for young kids, there may not be a difference between sponsored content and regular YouTube videos, study author Marie Bragg told Insider.

"The concerning thing is that, for toddlers and kids who are watching this, it may not matter that sometimes it's a paid sponsorship and sometimes it's not," said Bragg, an assistant professor in the department of population health at NYU. "It may function just like advertising and promote poor dietary behaviors regardless."

90% of food and drinks in the videos were unhealthy, brand-name snacks

Bragg and colleagues analyzed 179 videos featuring food and drinks, which collectively got more than a billion views and 2.6 million likes.

The vast majority — just over 90% — of the food and drinks in these videos were unhealthy, branded products. McDonald's accounted for 30% of branded product placements, and other top brands included Hershey's, Kinder, and M&M's.

Unhealthy products of no particular brand, such as hot dogs, accounted for 4% of food and drinks featured in the videos, and healthy branded and unbranded products made up the remaining 6%.

Promoting junk food to children can lead to obesity and other health problems

Kids who see influencers promoting unhealthy foods are more likely to overeat and snack on junk food in particular, another study in Pediatrics found.

In the long term, children who are obese are more likely to continue to be obese as adults, which can result in additional health problems.

"We've got a chance to set them up for health or set them up for a diet that's going to put them at risk of diabetes, heart disease, and other poor health outcomes," Bragg said. "Because a lot of times, the weight gain that happens in childhood or adolescence persists into adulthood."

Kids are especially susceptible to stealth marketing

Studies have shown that children younger than eight years old are unable to distinguish between commercials and cartoons — and that was back when advertising was mainly on TV.

Nowadays, more than 80% of parents with children age 12 or younger allow their kids to watch YouTube, and the regulations haven't caught up. Host selling — where the main character of a TV show endorses a product in a commercial — isn't allowed on TV, Bragg said, but influencers are allowed to advertise in a similar way on YouTube.

"Especially when they see children in their peer group using these products and drinking these drinks, playing with these toys, that's even more compelling to them because they see that as a social piece of things," Nicole Beurkens, child psychologist and nutritionist who was not affiliated with the study, told Insider.

The study authors called for the Federal Trade Commission to enact stronger regulations to address unhealthy food and beverage brands promoted by kid influencers, but Beurkens said some of the regulating will have to fall on the parents.
"Parents need to be aware of, monitoring, and communicating with kids about what they're consuming, particularly on a platform like YouTube," Beurkens said.

Read more:

What nutrition experts think about kids meals from 10 fast-food chains

CGI influencers could be exploiting children and their parents should be aware, internet safety campaigners have warned

TikTok is breeding a new batch of child stars. Psychologists say what comes next won't be pretty.