The study demonstrates how advertisers are seeking to take advantage of new avenues to market their wares to children.
“We should approach YouTube influencer videos with skepticism, even with videos that seem to be educational or kid-friendly,” said senior author Marie Bragg, an assistant professor of public health nutrition with joint appointments at New York University’s School of Global Public Health and Langone Medical Center.
Of the 418 YouTube videos that fell within their search criteria, the researchers found that 179 of the videos featured food or drinks, with 90% of those instances showing unhealthy branded items, such as fast food.
Those specific YouTube videos were viewed more than a billion times.
A new kind of marketing
Keeping track of what types of food advertising children are exposed to is important. That’s because dietary habits during childhood can have a significant effect on their likelihood of their becoming obese or developing cardiovascular disease and Type 2 diabetes later in life, according to past research.
And while much food advertising takes place on television, companies have increasingly turned to the growing audiences on social media sites such as YouTube.
One of the most important aspects of the study, Bragg said, was simply bringing attention to the fact that YouTube’s most popular under-18 hosts are frequently promoting products directly, and kids are often glued to the message.
“This kind of marketing is uncharted territory for families and researchers,” she said. Parents “may think they’re setting their kids down to watch another kid play in their backyard,” not children promoting Chicken McNuggets for a fee.
That’s particularly true during the pandemic with parents turning to screen time to keep kids occupied when there are fewer in-person activities and parents are working from home.
“While the adult digital ecosystem is driven by ad revenue and persuasive design, that doesn’t mean that children’s digital spaces should be,” added Radesky, who is also an assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Michigan. “We need a new children’s design code of ethics in the US.”