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Kids watching YouTube have long faced potentially harmful videos aimed their way. Whether it’s disturbing videos in the YouTube Kids app, pedophiliac remarks in the comments section, or the Momo challenge, there are a variety of ways kids can be negatively impacted while watching YouTube.
But can YouTubers make kids more obese?
That was the question posed by a recent study in the U.K. trying to ascertain whether YouTube stars who promote junk food impacted the children who watched them. Not unlike TV or print advertising, the study showed that marketing by social media influencers impacts the young brain (and the subsequence choices) of the viewers who watch them.
When a YouTuber markets unhealthy foods, young viewers tend to eat less healthy, the study concludes.
“This study demonstrates that influencer marketing of unhealthy foods increased children’s immediate food intake of these foods, whereas influencer promotion of healthy foods had no such effect,” the authors wrote. “These findings are consistent with the literature on the impact of celebrity endorsement, which shows that the effects of HFSS food promotion are more robust than for healthy foods.”
For this study, U.K. researchers used 176 children between the ages of 9 and 11, and they were shown the Instagram profiles of two popular YouTubers—the study doesn’t reveal the names of the YouTube stars, but it claims that one is a 26-year-old female with more than 12 million subscribers and the other is a 23-year-old male with more than 4 million subscribers. From their Instagram accounts, the children were shown healthy food marketing, junk food marketing, and marketing that didn’t relate to food.
Afterward, researchers let the children pick from a variety of snacks—including candy, chocolate, carrots, and grapes—and then eat as much of their food choice as they wanted for 10 minutes.
As Physicians Weekly points out, the kids who were inundated by the junk food marketing imbibed an average of 448 calories. Those who saw healthy food marketing ate 389 calories. Those who didn’t see any food promotions consumed 357.
While the study was possibly limited in the fact that some of the children already knew the YouTubers, meaning their food choice might have been skewed by whether they liked the vlogger, one expert told Physician’s Weekly that the study revealed something interesting.
“We already knew that food companies spend a lot of money to popular social media influencers to appeal to teens and increase the ‘cool’ factor for their products,” said Jennifer Harris of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at the University of Connecticut. “But this is the first study to show that this type of marketing increases children’s consumption of any available junk food—not just the advertised products.”
This is yet more disturbing news for parents whose kids enjoy perusing YouTube. Already, they have to watch out for bad-faith actors who want to scar the kids mentally. Now, they have to worry about influencers who could make them physically less healthy as well.
Josh Katzowitz is a staff writer at the Daily Dot specializing in YouTube and boxing. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, and Los Angeles Times. A longtime sports writer, he's covered the NFL for CBSSports.com and boxing for Forbes. His work has been noted twice in the Best American Sports Writing book series.