Social Media May Sway Kids To Eat More Cookies — And More Calories

Mar 3, 2019
Originally published on March 5, 2019 10:15 am

Any kid with a cellphone or social media account is likely to be following one or more of thousands of social media influencers who regularly post about what they do, what they like and what they eat.

Generally, these are people in their 20s who are successful, outgoing, positive, energetic and "highly appealing" to the younger crowd, according to Anna Coates, a doctoral student at the School of Psychology at the University of Liverpool in the U.K.

Coates wanted to know just how much kids' diets could be influenced by these video bloggers. So she and her colleagues conducted a study involving 176 children ages 9 to 11. The kids were divided into three groups. All the groups were shown images from real YouTube videos posted by popular vloggers in the U.K.

One group viewed vloggers who were not eating but holding an iPhone or sneaker, for example. Another group viewed images of vloggers eating healthy snacks like fruits or carrots. The third group viewed images of junk food being consumed, which included items like Mars chocolate bars, chocolate biscuits, and cookies.

After viewing the images, children had 10 minutes to choose between healthy snacks (carrot sticks and grapes) and unhealthy snacks (jelly beans and chocolate buttons). Watching the social media influencers consume healthy snacks did not make a significant difference in which foods — or how much — the children chose to eat after viewing the images.

But for those children who viewed vloggers eating unhealthy snacks, it was a different story: They consumed 32 percent more calories from unhealthy snacks compared with the children who viewed no food being eaten. And that translated to an extra 90 calories per day.

"It only takes an extra 70 calories a day for a child of normal weight to become overweight," says Dr. Natalie Muth, a spokesperson for the American Academy of Pediatrics.

As a pediatrician, Muth says many of her patients are overweight or obese, which puts them at risk for a variety of diseases later in life — or even while they're still in childhood: She says she's seeing an increase in the number of children diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes, a disease formerly suffered by mostly adults.

It's well-known that junk food ads on TV can strongly influence what kids want to eat. Muth worries that the added influence of social media will exacerbate an already unhealthy food environment, where kids are constantly being "bombarded by media images to eat junk food and drink unhealthy sugary drinks."

Coates and her co-authors conclude that food marketing restrictions should be applied to new forms of digital marketing, particularly on social media, where "vulnerable young people spend a lot of their time." More research is needed to understand the impact of digital food marketing.

In the meantime, Coates suggests that parents prepare their children for the junk food onslaught by talking with them about what's healthy and what's not. Her study is published this week in the journal Pediatrics.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

It is well-known that ads for junk food on TV can strongly influence what kids want to eat. Now a new study published in the journal Pediatrics finds that social media can also make a difference. Here's NPR's Patti Neighmond.

PATTI NEIGHMOND, BYLINE: Any kid with a cellphone or social media account is likely to be following one or more of thousands of social media influencers, who post regularly about what they do, what they like and what they eat.

ANNA COATES: They're young, they're successful, they're outgoing. They're positive, energetic.

NEIGHMOND: And highly appealing to kids, says Anna Coates, a Ph.D. student in psychology at the University of Liverpool in the U.K. Coates wanted to know just how much influence video bloggers have over what children eat. Her study looked at 9 to 11-year-olds. Some of them saw vloggers eating healthy snacks, like fruit or veggies. Others saw them eating junk food.

COATES: A Bounty bar. So a Mars chocolate bar. Chocolate biscuits, cookies. Those kind of things.

NEIGHMOND: After viewing the images, children had 10 minutes to choose between a healthy and an unhealthy snack. The children who saw the vloggers eating junk food were much more likely to choose the unhealthy one.

COATES: They actually consumed 32 percent more calories from the unhealthier snack.

NEIGHMOND: That's an extra 90 calories a day. And Dr. Natalie Muth with the American Academy of Pediatrics says that can make a difference.

NATALIE MUTH: We know that it only takes about an extra 70 calories per day for a child who's of normal weight to develop overweight or obesity.

NEIGHMOND: Muth says the added influence of social media exacerbates an already unhealthy food environment.

MUTH: Everywhere kids go, they see junk food. They're constantly exposed to it. They're constantly getting bombarded by media images to eat it and to drink sugary drinks.

NEIGHMOND: Researcher Coates suggests parents prepare their children for the junk food onslaught by talking with them about what's healthy and what's not. Patti Neighmond, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.