Social media influencers often tout unhealthy foods, drinks to children, study finds

Social media influencers popular with children mostly promote unhealthy food and beverage choices online, a new study has found. Photo by boaphotostudio/Pixabay

May 5 (UPI) — Most food- and drink-related content posted by “influencers” on social media fails to meet the World Health Organization’s standards for advertising of these products to children, according to a study presented Thursday.

Based on an analysis of content posted by German-language influencers on TikTok, Instagram and YouTube, 75% of the featured food and drinks were high in salt, fat or sugar, the data, presented Thursday during the European Congress on Obesity in Maastricht, Netherlands, showed.

Because of these characteristics, manufacturers and distributors of these products would not be allowed to market them to children in either Germany or Austria, where most of the influencers are based, the researchers said.

The “majority” of posts were not labeled as advertisements for the food and beverage products mentioned, they said.

“How can we expect our children to eat healthily when content on social media is skewed to promote foods high in fat, salt and sugar,” study co-author Maria Wakolbinger said in a press release.

“Influencers have huge power over what young people feel is relevant and appealing [and] Our findings suggest that most of the time, influencers are not flagging when their posts are [advertisements],” said Wakolbinger, a public health researcher at the University of Vienna in Austria.

She and her colleagues urged governments to take steps to regulate food and beverage marketing content on social media.

In 2015, the WHO released the “Children’s Code,” which made recommendations to member states regarding standards for food and beverage advertising for children age 12 and younger.

The goal of the standards is to ensure young people are not exposed only to advertising for unhealthy food and beverage choices, the agency said.

They were crafted in response to the growing global obesity crisis, which has seen some 40 million children age 5 and younger globally meet the criteria for being severely overweight, according to the WHO.

Up to 20% of children and adolescents age 19 and younger in the United States meets the criteria for obesity, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates.

For this study, the researchers analyzed the meals, snacks and drinks that appeared in posts and videos by six of the most popular German-speaking influencers with teenagers ages 13 to 17, who had a combined total of more than 35 million followers or subscribers.

The influencers, who posted on TikTok, YouTube and Instagram, were decided based on having more than 100,000 subscribers or followers on all three platforms as well as their popularity with young people and German-language content, the researchers said.

The researchers analyzed the last 20 videos or posts uploaded by each influencer before May 1, 2021.

Of the 364 videos and posts — or almost 13 hours of footage — one-quarter featured food or drinks, for a total of 409 products, the data showed.

Based on the WHO nutrient guidelines, 75% of the featured foods and drinks were considered unhealthy and should not be marketed to children, while only 17% could be, the researchers said.

The nutritional quality of the remaining 8% could not be determined, they said.

Chocolate and sweets were the most commonly posted about food, accounting for nearly one-quarter of posts, while ready-made convenience foods accounted for 9%.

More than half, or 53%, of the products were described and presented positively by the influencers and 73% of them were shown being consumed by the influencers themselves.

In 60% of the videos, the product was mentioned in the video description, with 19% citing the brand name or manufacturer, the researchers said.

Marketing of unhealthy food and beverage products to children has been linked with unhealthy diet choices and weight gain among young people, previous research suggests.

Currently, the United States has no regulations limiting social media marketing of foods and drinks, though the food industry does have voluntary standards in place.

“We must crack down on social media and challenge the role of influencers in junk food marketing,” study co-author Eva Winzer said in a press release.

“In most countries, there are no restrictions on the marketing of unhealthy foods on websites, social media or mobile applications,” said Winzer, a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Vienna.

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