How YouTube Advertising Encourages Unhealthy Eating Habits in Children

How YouTube Advertising Encourages Unhealthy Eating Habits in Children

Written by Melvi Agolli | Editer by Evan DeTurk

Past psychological literature has highlighted how parental and peer influences can impact children’s use of YouTube, either in problematic or adaptive ways. For example a parent might stress the importance of the educational side of YouTube, while a peer in elementary school might expose the child to more entertaining, and possibly problematic, content. In a recent study, researchers at the Ajou University School of Medicine found that school closures during the COVID-19 pandemic substantially increased children’s YouTube usage and led to increased body weight gain and decreased physical activity in a sample of Korean children, as well as spikes in parental depression.  Many parents use YouTube as a tool to keep their young children occupied so that they can go about their daily tasks without distractions. Smartphones and tablets are often no more than an arm’s reach away, making YouTube an increasingly convenient form of entertainment for children. Since there’s no need for children to interact face-to-face with their peers, YouTube entertainment can require less effort than social interaction, particularly for more introverted children. On YouTube, entertainers rely on ad revenue for a  sizable chunk of their profits. In many cases, a popular influencer is paid by a brand to review or show the product in their videos, often encouraging audiences to purchase the product with a special discount or deal. Advertising may be especially concerning as it relates to children, who may not be able to comprehend advertising intent until 8 years of age, as researchers at Curtin University have found. In many cases, a popular influencer is paid by a brand to review or show the product in their channel, often encouraging their audiences to buy the product with a special discount or offer. 

In a 2020 study, researchers at the University of Alicante examined how advertising of foods of low nutritional value by popular influencers actually encourages children to consume those same foods, as they associate them with positive feelings. Interestingly, this study emphasized child YouTubers, who are more likely to show unhealthy eating habits on their channels. In fact, most child influencer food-related videos examined by the study contained consumption of ultra-processed foods. Even when the sponsors  made an effort to remind the audience about healthy eating habits in campaigns outside of YouTube, these same warnings were not present when the child influencers themselves promoted the brand. Additionally, the videos examined by the studies frequently failed to clearly disclose that the product being consumed was sponsored by a brand. As mentioned previously, children under 8 cannot decipher advertising intent as well; in addition, older children between 9-12 are likely to identify with and develop significant bonds with influencers, despite never having met them before (also called parasocial relationships, a a well-described phenomenon in the field of psychology). The implications are concerning: knowing the effectiveness of influencer advertising, brands likely recruit child and adult influencers preferentially as their main marketing strategy towards children. 

In order to protect against the potential harmful effects of misunderstanding advertisers’ intentions, there have been recent efforts by the Federal Trade Commission to stress the importance of clearly stating advertising intent. In the context of YouTube, this could mean a verbal or text warning that an ad is about to be presented in the video. Although this is an important first step, it is likely not enough to fully protect children from the persuasive tactics of advertisements. In another 2020 study, researchers at the University of Amsterdam described how a child’s understanding of the intent of an advertisement is moderated by the child’s parasocial relationship to the influencer.  In other words, children are capable of viewing popular influencers as their friends, even if they have never interacted with them before. The study showed that even when the child understands the selling intent of the advertisement, a strong parasocial relationship with the influencer helps the brand’s appeal. In these cases, the child’s understanding that the influencer is making money by promoting the product is not enough to stop the child from wanting to obtain that product. Conversely, in cases where children do not have a parasocial relationship with the influencer, the understanding of advertising intent decreases brand desire. 

Put together, these findings imply that influencer-led advertising of processed foods on  YouTube has the potential to change children’s dietary preferences towards unhealthy food. These effects are in contrast to childhood obesity prevent policies and prolong the childhood obesity problem. However, parents can model healthy eating behaviors in the home to encourage healthy eating habits. In fact, the availability of healthy food at home has been associated with healthy diets in children, while frequently eating out as a family is correlated with unhealthy dietary behavior (Shier et al., 2016). It is very important that parents and older siblings take an active role in guiding children towards making healthy decisions and serving as role models towards this purpose. Childhood dietary habits that lead to health problems do not arise in a vacuum, but are often shaped through advertising of foods of low nutritional value that associate positive feelings with processed foods. YouTube is and will likely continue to be a popular source of entertainment for children, which increases the need for parental supervision and guidance when it comes to food choices, as well as tighter regulation of YouTube advertisements. 

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