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Food and beverage companies spend $1.8 billion annually marketing products to children, and a portion of that budget is spent working with YouTube and other social media influencers. njekaterina/Getty Images
  • A review of 418 videos from popular “kid influencer” channels on YouTube found that almost 43 percent included promotion of food and drink items.
  • More than 90 percent of featured food and drink items included unhealthy branded food, drinks, and fast food.
  • The videos in the study had been viewed more than 1 billion times.
  • More than 80 percent of parents with children under age 12 allow them to watch YouTube.

YouTube shows aimed at kids may be serving up some stealthy marketing for unhealthy food and drinks along with popular “unwrapping” videos and other programs.

A review of 418 videos from the 5 most popular “kid influencer” channels on YouTube found that nearly 43 percent included promotion of food and drink items — more than 90 percent of which was considered unhealthy branded food, drinks, and fast food.

Not-so-healthy foods like fast food or processed foods were most frequently featured, followed by candy and soda.

Some programming also included kids playing with toys obtained from fast food outlets, like McDonald’s Happy Meals.

By contrast, unhealthy foods that weren’t branded was rarely depicted in the videos.

And healthy food like fruit and yogurt only rarely made an appearance, regardless of whether it was branded or unbranded.

Researchers at the New York University School of Global Public Health and NYU Grossman School of Medicine said the YouTube videos that featured unhealthy food and drink — representing 178 of the 418 videos reviewed — had been viewed more than 1 billion times in the aggregate.

“Kids already see several thousand food commercials on television every year, and adding these YouTube videos on top of it may make it even more difficult for parents and children to maintain a healthy diet,” said study senior author Marie Bragg, PhD, assistant professor of public health nutrition at NYU School of Global Public Health and assistant professor in the Department of Population Health at NYU Langone Health.

“We need a digital media environment that supports healthy eating instead of discouraging it,” Braggs said.

The study, published in the journal Pediatrics, focused on videos from the 5 most popular influencers among viewers ages 3 to 14 years old. The influencers themselves fell into the same age group.

The most popular of these peer influencer channels included in the study was Ryan’s World, which in 2020 had nearly 27 million subscribers and features videos of channel star Ryan Kaji opening and playing with toys, performing science experiments, doing crafts, exercising, and eating.

Other kid-centric YouTube channels studied included TheEngineeringFamily, Sandaroo Kids, Daily Bumps, and The Tube Family.

YouTube is the second-most visited website in the world.

More than 80 percent of parents with a child under 12 years old allow their child to watch YouTube, and 34 percent of parents reported that their kid watches YouTube regularly, according to a 2018 survey from the Pew Research Center.

Food and beverage companies spend $1.8 billion annually marketing products to children, according to the NYU researchers. And an increasing share of that spending is going to social channels like YouTube and TikTok.

“It’s a really inexpensive way to reach massive numbers of people,” Jason R. Rich, author of the “Ultimate Guide to YouTube for Business,” told Healthline.

“The allure of YouTube may be especially strong in 2020 as many parents are working remotely and have to juggle the challenging task of having young kids at home because of COVID-19,” added Bragg.

Ryan’s World generated $26 million in revenue in 2019, making the then 8-year-old the richest star on YouTube, according to Forbes.

In 2018, Ryan’s World earned $22 million from a mix of advertising, sponsorships, product placement, and spin-off products.

“Influencers are making a lot of money on product placement and often not telling people about it,” said Rich, who said that while the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) requires disclosure of paid social media programming, product placement deals fall into a legal “gray area” and often aren’t revealed by video producers.

Some social media stars have even developed their own food and drink products, which are marketed on their channels without disclosing the influencers’ ties to the product, Rich noted.

“Parents may not realize that kid influencers are often paid by food companies to promote unhealthy food and beverages in their videos,” said Bragg. “Our study is the first to quantify the extent to which junk food product placements appear in YouTube videos from kid influencers.”

“It was concerning to see that kid influencers are promoting a high volume of junk food in their YouTube videos, and that those videos are generating enormous amounts of screen time for these unhealthy products,” she said.

Bragg told Healthline that while kid influencers are trusted by their peers — and parents — because they seem to be ‘everyday people,’ it was often impossible to determine which food and drink products appeared in videos as a result of paid placement deals.

In some cases, she said, a product may simply appear on a shelf with its logo facing the camera. In others, the video may depict a seemingly unrelated activity, like playing with toys, before segueing into eating activities like lunching on a Carl’s Jr. hamburger.

“Woven into these videos is a kind of stealthy advertising we haven’t seen before,” Bragg said.

In other videos, the food product is the focal point, such as segments featuring food challenges like “broccoli versus ice cream,” kids playing with a snack vending machine, or doing a craft experiment like melting Skittles to create color art.

In 2019, a watchdog group filed an FTC complaint against Ryan ToysReview, alleging that the Ryan’s World-affiliated channel was engaged in deceptive marketing for not disclosing its sponsorship ties.

“We hope that the results of this study encourage the FTC and state attorney generals to focus on this issue and identify strategies to protect children and public health,” said study co-author Jennifer Pomeranz.

Ryan’s World has disclosed some sponsorship deals with food companies, including Hardee’s and Chuck E. Cheese.

Bragg noted that children under age 8 often have difficulty distinguishing between educational or entertainment programming and advertising.

“When you see these kid influencers eating certain foods, it doesn’t necessarily look like advertising,” said Bragg. “But it is advertising, and numerous studies have shown that children who see food ads consume more calories than children who see non-food ads, which is why the National Academy of Medicine and World Health Organization (WHO) identify food marketing as a major driver of childhood obesity.”

Rich said parents need to take an active role in helping kids distinguish between content meant to entertain and that meant to sell products.

“Parents should understand what their kids are watching, look at the content, and make their own appraisal,” he said.