YouTube kid stars are stealth marketers for junk food

Study sounds alarm on videos that appear to be kid-friendly, but, in fact, promote unhealthy branded products.

Dave Yasvinski 4 minute read October 27, 2020
YouTube kid stars

Kids are getting exposed to unhealthy foods via popular YouTube stars, a study suggests. Getty

Young YouTubers are serving up more than just educational content to their impressionable fans, according to a new study that sounds the alarm on stealth marketing.

In the study, published this month in Pediatrics, researchers looked at videos featuring the five most watched kid influencers on YouTube — a group ranging in age from three to 14 years old — focusing on the amount of time spent on any given activity, be it playing with toys or sucking back sugary beverages. Of the 418 videos included in the study, 179 included the presence of food or drink, with 90 per cent of those coming in the form of unhealthy, branded products, according to CNN.

The 418 videos had been collectively viewed a staggering 48 billion times by online audiences, and the videos featuring food and/or drink were clicked on over one billion times.

“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 at New York University’s School of Global Public Health and Langone Medical Center.

The findings are particularly timely in a pandemic that has forced millions of children to stay indoors for long periods of time, leaving increasingly frazzled parents with few options to keep them entertained and educated. One of the study’s main goals, researchers said, was to simply bring awareness to the types of content being marketed to their kids alongside the latest must-have toys.

“Child exposure to unhealthy food, beverage and other content on YouTube needs to be regulated,” said Jenny Radesky, an assistant professor at the University of Michigan and the lead author of the American Academy of Pediatrics policy statement on digital advertising to children. “Host-selling — the practice of trusted characters promoting products within their own videos — needs to stop on YouTube, because it’s not allowed on TV.”

Ryan’s World — one of the five YouTube channels included in the study — regularly features its young star playing with toys in the presence of unhealthy food. “Young children view the stars of these videos as peers and friends and don’t understand that the reason YouTube stars like Ryan are so enthusiastic about products featured in there is because they are stealth marketers,” said Josh Golin, the executive director of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood.

“Research shows that kids who watch these videos are more likely to nag their parents for products — and throw a tantrum if they say no — than if they watch traditional TV commercials.”

Of particular concern, according to Radesky, is the relatively new phenomenon of unboxing videos, in which influential YouTube personalities talk to their fans while opening the latest toy or gadget sent to them by companies anxious to attract eager young eyeballs. “While the adult digital ecosystem is driven by ad revenue and persuasive design, that doesn’t mean that children’s digital spaces should be,” she said.

Of particular concern is unboxing videos in which influential YouTube personalities talk to their fans while opening the latest toy or gadget

Susan Yin, a spokesperson for Sunlight Entertainment, the company that produces Ryan’s World, told CNN they welcome the new study and hinted at the possibility of collaborating with the American Academy of Pediatrics in the future. “Ryan’s World cares deeply about the well-being of our viewers and their health and safety is a top priority for us,” she said. “As such, we strictly follow all platforms terms of service, as well as any guidelines set forth by the FTC (Federal Trade Commission) and laws and regulations at the federal, state, and local levels.”

Over 150 million children worldwide were obese as of 2019, a number expected to widen to 206 million in the next five years, according to the Child Obesity Foundation. Because the eating habits formed in childhood often persist throughout life, Canada is currently in the midst of an epidemic with obesity rates rising steadily over the past few decades. More than 60 per cent of adult Canadians are currently overweight or obese, adding up to a hefty annual economic burden of around seven billion dollars.

Overweight adults are at an increased increase of heart disease, cancer, stroke, type 2 diabetes and a lifespan three to five years shorter than individuals with a healthy weight.

If you or someone you know is struggling with childhood obesity, you can find more information, including tips on healthier eating, at the Childhood Obesity Foundation.

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