Young YouTube influencers are increasingly marketing junk food to fellow kids, study finds

Popular YouTube videos made by influencers often include product placement of unhealthy foods, blurring the line between advertisement and entertainment.

(CNN)Kid influencers on YouTube are marketing junk food and sugary beverages to their fellow kids, and they're racking up billions of page views, according to a new study published Monday in the journal Pediatrics.

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.
The researchers analyzed videos posted by the five most-watched kid influencers on YouTube in 2019. The influencers were between the ages of 3 and 14. The study team noted whether the influencers played with toys or consumed food, such as McDonald's meals, keeping tabs on the amount of time they spent on a given activity.
    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.
    "Child exposure to unhealthy food, beverage, and other content on YouTube needs to be regulated," said Dr. Jenny Radesky, lead author of the American Academy of Pediatrics policy statement on digital advertising to children, via email. "'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." Radesky was not involved in the study.
    One major type of YouTube influencer video, which can feature food, is the phenomenon known as "unboxing videos," in which people open up boxes of products while they narrate or comment on what they're doing. The videos can blur the line between a product review and advertising outright.
    "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."
    One popular YouTube channel, Ryan's World, which was one of the five major influencer channels featured in the study, boasts more than 26 million subscribers. It features videos with food and stars a young boy who frequently plays with toys on screen.
    "Parents shouldn't allow their children to watch unboxing videos or other influencer content," said Josh Golin, executive director of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, via e-mail.
    "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."
    These videos can be particularly successful because viewers feel as though they have a personal or friendly relationship with the star. "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," Golin said.
    The emerging awareness around YouTube influencers and food product placement in their videos could stoke change in the industry, as stars continue cultivating their relationship with their fans.
    "Ryan's World cares deeply about the well-being of our viewers and their health and safety is a top priority for us," said Susan Yin, a spokesperson for Sunlight Entertainment, the production company for Ryan's World, via email.
    "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."
    She said that Ryan's World "welcomes" the new study from the American Academy of Pediatrics.
    "As we continue to evolve our content we look forward to ways we might work together in the future to